The little bits and pieces of my internal life.

From the Mosaic
Sunday, February 27, 2005
Best Picture 2005 Reviews #5: Million Dollar Baby

And here, ladies and gentlemen, right under the wire, in the red corner, weighing in at just a bit over two hours, Clint Eastwood's not-really-about-boxing movie, Million Dollar Baby, starring Hilary Swank as Maggie, an up-and-coming boxer, Clint Eastwood as Frankie, the man who refused to train her, and Morgan Freeman as Eddie, an old, retired, injured boxer who shames Frankie into training her after all. All proceeds more or less as you expect, until Maggie's fight for the championship title, at which point things occur to make Frankie think that training her was a bad idea after all. Maggie and Eddie remain convinced, though, and eventually Frankie comes around. Look, I don't want to spoil it. There are lots of places you can find out what exactly goes wrong. Suffice it to say it's a lot more like Unforgiven and Mystic River than it is like Rocky.

Everyone says this is the film to beat for Best Picture this year, and after seeing it, I agree: this really is the best film of the year. It shares a common bond with the other Eastwood films above in that its main theme is the moral ambiguity between what's legal and what's conventionally moral and what's truly right, and the story of Maggie's rise and fall is a superior vehicle for the theme. So, A+ for screenplay. Very nice. It's not neat and tidy, of course, but it's like life itself in that way.

On to acting. Look, Clint Eastwood is a fine actor, and he's fine in this role, but the role of a hard-bitten boxing trainer with a shadowy past doesn't really stretch him dramatically. Fortunately, it's not about him -- it's about Hilary Swank's Maggie. Swank makes Maggie's fighting nature clear from start to finish; you have no problem believing she's nothing more than a waitress with a dream and a hell of a left. Excellent work.

The movie has a fair bit of narration. A lot of the time narration doesn't work well, especially the amount that Million Dollar Baby has, but this time, it's great, because it's Morgan Freeman as Eddie, the old boxer who's already seen it all, in yet another Really Good Acting Job.

The direction, hmm. Here's the thing -- it's heresy, but even though I believe that this film is superior to The Aviator, I think The Aviator has superior direction, which would mean that Scorcese actually *deserves* the Best Director Oscar this year in my opinion. The problem with Million Dollar Baby is that apparently no one in the entire film owns so much as a 100-watt light bulb. It's unrelentingly dark, not only in tone but also in sheer amount of lumens. Yeah, it's a gritty movie about gritty people in a gritty line of business, but still, it made me want to send in the Queer Eye guys and teach them a thing or too about how color can enliven a room. The Pianist was more cheerfully lit.

But still. Go. See. I'd tell you to enjoy, but it's a heartrending film. But great art really *should* rend one's heart, from time to time, and this is great art. In my opinion, I managed to save the best picture of 2004 for last.

Acting: Yowza for Swank and Freeman, competent for Eastwood.
Direction: If I could see the film, that might help.
Screenplay: What doesn't emotionally kill you will make you stronger.

Overall: Simply put, the best picture of the year. Except maybe for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Blogger Spell-Checker Has a Sense of Humor

This is true:

Before I posted my review of Ray, I ran it through Blogger's spell-checker.

For "womanizing" it suggested "homemaking."

Best Picture 2005 Reviews #4: Ray

By the time I became old enough to be interested in popular music, Ray Charles was an institution. A damn fine institution of extraordinary talent and vigor, but an institution nonetheless. Georgia On My Mind was already the Georgia state song, and he was starring in Diet Pepsi commercials. So while I appreciated his music, I didn't have any understanding of the often controversial course his life had taken to that point.

Ray, the movie, has changed all that forever. You see Ray Charles from his early childhood, when he still had his sight, through winning his place in a white country band (!), on a bus to Seattle, and many other stops until, finally, you see him transcending the genres which influenced him and creating modern soul music. Of course, you also see him womanizing and using heroin; the man was a pioneer, not a saint.

As an aside, kids, don't do heroin. Heroin is bad. Watch Ray to see how bad.

Ray would be a compelling story, regardless of anything else, but I can't even begin to express how good Jamie Foxx is at being Ray Charles. By way of example, there is a scene where Ray Charles sits down at the piano and starts to write "Hit the Road, Jack." Then there's a cut to a full on-stage performance of the song. The credits revealed that while Ray Charles had done the vocals for the full performance, Foxx had done the singing and playing in the composition scene. I had absolutely no idea -- the transition was seamless. Foxx is just that good. He's astounding.

Oh, um. Ray was directed, and it had a screenplay. Yeah. It was fine, but not extraordinary. The film is a Very Good Biopic, about as good as they can get. I thought The Aviator was a better film overall, because it colored outside the lines of what a biopic is supposed to be, whereas Ray was exemplary but conventional.

But damn, Jamie Foxx is good. Go, see it, don't worry about the screenplay or the direction or anything else other than the music of Ray Charles and the acting of Jamie Foxx.

Acting: You mean that wasn't really Ray Charles?
Direction: Who cares?
Screenplay: You know, now that you mention it, the rise to superstardom of a poor blind black kid from south Georgia does seem like an interesting subject for a film.

Overall: Not *quite* as good as The Aviator, but still a really excellent film. And, dude, it's Ray Charles!
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Best Picture 2005 Reviews #3: The Aviator

Two hours and forty-five minutes rarely passes so fleetingly in a theater as it did for Martin Scorcese's The Aviator, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays Howard Hughes, rich Texas businessman, movie producer and director, playboy, and, oh yes, aviator. I hadn't realized just how much of an aviator the man truly was; to the extent one hears about him now, it's invariably in the context of the insanity that finally overcame him in his later years. It turns out that's really a shame; he made bona fide contributions to the world, and people only remember that he locked himself in the penthouse at the Landmark Hotel in Las Vegas.

The film does an amazing job of making Howard Hughes, of all people, into a sympathetic protagonist. You see the brilliance of the man, the driven visionary, and the reckless desire for more status and fame and power and sex, and yet at the same time Scorcese shows us the little threads, the twinges of madness, and the inexorable slow decline into the sort of insanity that only a fabulously wealthy man could possibly sustain. It's not filmed or played as a tragedy, but it's a tragedy all the same.

The script is good. There are a couple of strained bits (one of which, unfortunately, happens in the very first shot of the film, though even that shot is redeemed by the end), but on the whole it does its job of allowing Scorcese to show us the enigma that is Howard Hughes. And DiCaprio does a fine job, too. Of course he doesn't look a bit like Howard Hughes, but that's not the point. The point is that he makes you believe that there's this guy who built a movie and aviation business who, every day, is going just a little crazier.

Alan Alda got an Oscar nomination for his role as a corrupt Senator, which was certainly fun (talk about playing against type!) but I didn't think it was exceptional. Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, stole every scene she was in, to the extent that I wondered if the screenplay had been redone to make Hepburn have a bigger role in Hughes's life. God, she was magnificent.

But ultimately, the real attraction is Scorcese's direction. It can be hard for people to understand exactly what the effect of direction in film is; it was for me. But go see The Aviator, or rent one of Scorcese's other fine films (there are plenty to choose from; I recommend GoodFellas). That thing that Scorcese's films have that other films don't? That's good direction. That's how it's done, ladies and gentlemen.

Acting: Good (and Blanchett is great)
Direction: Bow down and worship the Great Director!
Screenplay: It stays out of the way of the acting and direction. Good for it.

Overall: Took Sideways and Finding Neverland out back and whipped them until they cried like little babies.
Sunday, February 20, 2005
Best Picture 2005 Reviews #2: Sideways

So, after a week filled with failed attempts to see another film, I finally was able to slip away yesterday afternoon with a friend and see Sideways, in which Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church play buddies with distinctly different ideas of how to spend a week in Santa Barbara wine country before one of them gets married the following weekend. Church, playing Jack, the prospective groom, wants spend his last week of freedom getting laid; Giamatti, playing Miles, the best man, wants only to indulge in some single-vineyard reserve pinot noir. In pursuit of Jack's goal, they meet up with Virginia Madsen as a wine aficionado waitress and Sandra Oh as a tasting room employee.

Last year, Lost in Translation was nominated for Best Picture, and undoubtedly Sideways fills the same niche in the minds of the voters, namely the high-concept comedy filled with character development and symbolism. I didn't enjoy Lost in Translation nearly as much as everyone else, not least because I couldn't get into the characters, who were having a miserable time in Tokyo. Sideways fixes that. Neither Miles nor Jack (especially Jack!) is really worth liking, but they seemed like real people, not caricatures. They have messy bedrooms, poor judgment, and temperaments that clash. Miles even manages to grow and change over the course of the film. It should be noted, though, that I'm a California-based wine aficionado myself, and so I could see more of myself in Miles than most people probably can.

I thought the direction was downright good, evocative of both the sudden jolt of a knock waking one up from a hangover and, on the other extreme, long lazy days spent driving through vineyards along the California coast. And I thought the screenplay was good, too. Not astounding (I'd have to give that honor to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and honestly, not as good as Lost in Translation's, but it did what it was supposed to do, and I certainly didn't think I was being led around by the nose.

All in all, I thought this was a cut above Finding Neverland, for sure.

Acting: Competent-to-good
Direction: Downright good
Screenplay: Good

Overall: I would have gladly paid full price for this one.
Saturday, February 12, 2005
Best Picture 2005 Reviews #1: Finding Neverland

I have made it my tradition, since 2001, to see all the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar before Oscar night. It started by chance, because I had already seen Moulin Rouge and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and had made plans to see A Beautiful Mind, so I decided to collect the whole set. I have found that the best picture of the year, in my opinion, is consistently to be found among the five nominees, though often it does not win the Oscar, so by seeing all five I can assure myself of viewing some truly excellent film.

So this afternoon I went out and saw my first nominee this year, Finding Neverland, with Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie and Kate Winslet as the widowed mother of the boys who, from the moment we see them, are obviously going to serve as the inspiration for his next play, which of course he desperately needs to succeed after a flop. The play is Peter Pan and, well, you've heard of it, and Finding Neverland is a true story, so I think I give nothing away by revealing that the play is indeed a success.

You may guess that I found the film predictable. It was not without merit, to be sure. Depp and Winslet are masters of their craft, and I found the direction competent, though not exceptional. What I enjoyed the most was the seamless transition between literalism and the flights of fancy in the head of Barrie and the Davies family -- Barrie opens the door to his bedroom, and there's sunlit lawn and fairies and pirates and what have you. Sure, it's been done before, but I thought this was done particularly well. I should also mention that in at least some cases, the flights of fancy were not straightforward modern special effects, but were more the highest-budget Victorian theatrical renditions of the imaginative landscape possible, nicely capturing Barrie's own vision of making his imagination come alive on the stage.

My second biggest complaint was that most of the characters were cardboard cutouts, particularly Barrie's wife Mary, who had all the allure of a freezer in Siberia. What an artist would want with such a woman, other than perhaps as a warning to others, I can't fathom.

My biggest complaint was that the film seemed as if it was trying to be a jack of all trades, and of course it ended up a master of none. It tried to squeeze in failed marriage, childhood grief, jealous motherhood, skepticism versus hope, and of course the all-important Power of Imagination to Work Wonders (most of the time). Any of these subjects could have merited an entire film; trying to develop all of them under two hours, well, the effort quite simply fell short in my opinion.

So, go see it, enjoy recapturing the sense of only needing imagination to create a Wild West shootout or a pirate execution, but don't expect depth.

Acting: Good
Direction: Enh, with good parts
Screenplay: Lame

Overall: Not bad, but I'm glad I have a student discount.
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  • Index of Current Titles

    Best Picture 2005 Reviews #5: Million Dollar Baby

    Blogger Spell-Checker Has a Sense of Humor

    Best Picture 2005 Reviews #4: Ray

    Best Picture 2005 Reviews #3: The Aviator

    Best Picture 2005 Reviews #2: Sideways

    Best Picture 2005 Reviews #1: Finding Neverland

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