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Sideways a rare treat

By Lady Liberty
web posted January 31, 2005

Million Dollar Baby

** 1/2 out of ****

Million Dollar BabyThe Oscar-nominated Million Dollar Baby is finally showing in wide release and, with all of the media and critical acclaim, it was a given that I'd be buying my tickets the moment the film arrived in my own cineplex. I wasn't the only one who had that bright idea; it's rare that I see lines for matineé showings, and though this line didn't measure up to those for The Passion of the Christ or The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, it was never-the-less a comment on the substantial buzz surrounding the film.

Million Dollar Baby tells the story of wanna-be boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). Raised as poor "white trash," Maggie believes her ticket out of poverty is boxing. She scrapes out a living as a waitress, but spends her every spare hour working to get in better shape for the ring. Her problem is that, however hard she works, she's untrained. Meanwhile, well regarded trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) has some talented prospects that have come up through the gym he owns. But he's lost some of his edge as a trainer because of a fear of taking risks, and he loses boxers accordingly. Despite having both the time and the ability to train Maggie, Frankie is horrified when Maggie asks him to work with her. He has never trained a girl, and he makes it clear he never intends to train a girl.

Scrap (Morgan Freeman) is an old friend of Frankie's as well as a helper at Frankie's gym. A retired boxer himself, he's not a trainer but he is able to give some of the young up-and-coming fighters advice on occasion. He also isn't shy when it comes to giving Frankie suggestions. It's due as much to Scrap's nagging as it is to Maggie's perserverence when Frankie finally agrees to give her a few pointers.

Frankie is relentless as a trainer, but Maggie's stubbornness and determination prove equal to his demands. As the two spend more time together, they gradually learn a little about each other. Maggie is alone in the world but for a famiily that consistently shames her; Frankie is estranged from his only child. As a team, the pair not only begin to see some small successes in the boxing ring, but to assuage a little of their own personal pain, each through the support of the other.

Million Dollar Baby offers a rough look at a world few people see or know. While we've all heard of the champions, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of boxers who fight at the local level for a few dollars, or even just for experience. These unsung fighters work countless hours to get a few fights, and the vast majority of them fade away after becoming too old or too injured to fight one more time. Yet there's a passion in these athletes that can't be denied. The film captures that consuming desire among some of those who frequent Frankie's gym, at the same time—by virtue of sets and cinemetography alone—it also depicts the bleak existence some of these people endure.

Much of the film is filled with cement floors and walls, dimly lit cheap apartments, greasy spoon restaurants, and faded clothing. Though these things aren't featured, they're constantly present, and it's to the director's (Clint Eastwood) credit that the ambiance is rendered without emphasis. The editing leaves something to be desired (although the film is nominated for an Oscar in that category, I've seen any number of films in the last year that were far better in that regard); I'm not fond of the "fade to black" version of changing scenes, and there are too many of those here. As a whole, the direction is understated, perhaps too much so (despite this, Eastwood is nominated for Best Director). In moments of quiet determination, the scenes are superlative; but when there's excitement or tragedy, both fall a little flat.

Hilary Swank, who is nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, is very good. To be fair, however, this is the kind of role that actresses dream of and Academy members just love to single out. And while Swank does the job, it almost seems as though this role was written with awards in mind. Clint Eastwood, himself nominated for a Best Actor award, is largely unemotional. Though his character is stoic through great pain, I found his performance to be too unemotional. I was rarely not aware that he was reciting lines, and am at a loss as to his nomination in the category (I should point out that I also thought the Oscar-winning Unforgiven was a terrible movie—well done, of course, but as dull as dishwater—an assessment with which most critics disagreed). Morgan Freeman once again offers us the quiet dignity of a man who, in another actor's hands, might have seemed desperate instead. He may have given the best performance of all here.

My biggest problem with Million Dollar Baby is not that it isn't a perfect movie, but that it tries so hard to be. That fault lies largely with the script (written by Paul Haggis, the script is based on a short story by F.X. Toole, a former boxing "cut man"). The script is also nominated for an Oscar, and it is, indeed, well crafted from an academic point of view. But the characters all say and do things that are, well, perfect. Scrap doles out pieces of insight that are worded just so; Maggie, her uneducated southern accent and all, always has the ideal comeback or illustrative story on her lips. And Frankie, even more than the others, seems to be saying things that were written for him rather than speaking naturally about whatever might be on his mind (several scenes of Frankie with his parish priest, while amusing or heart-rending by turns, are also just about as scripted as can be). It's also a near-fatal flaw in my mind when the next plot twist (or at least what's intended as a twist) prove to be utterly predictable, including the "surprise twist" ending.

Million Dollar Baby is a good movie, but it's not a great one despite its pretentions in that regard. It's difficult to praise a film for being good when it could have been so much better. I laughed once, and I teared up a couple of times, but a story like this one should have brought audiences to more than that. If you're someone who likes to check out Oscar-nominated performances before the awards are given out, you'll want to see Million Dollar Baby now. Otherwise, I'm not sure why you wouldn't wait 'til this one comes out on DVD. And when it does, I'd rent something else along with it. Million Dollar Baby may prove to be less than you're expecting it to be, too.

POLITICAL NOTES: There's a welfare mother depicted in the fiilm as being fat, lazy, and a cheat. For Hollywood, that's a relatively politically incorrect position to take, and I, for one, appreciated it. Although it's unfair to say that most—or even many—welfare recipients are like this one, the truth is that there are too many of them out there. So often, such people are depicted as almost heroic in their circumstances and struggles, and it's refreshing to see the other side shown here.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Million Dollar Baby is rated PG-13 for "violence, some disturbing images, thematic material, [and] language." I don't believe much of the movie is appropriate for those under 13, and many of those over 13 will be bored by it. This movie is largely a showcase for an over-polished script and a few actors rather than a truly gripping story. Those too young to appreciate those things—and those who are mature enough to appreciate such things but don't—should skip Million Dollar Baby in favor of something with an appeal that's a little more effortless.

Sideways

**** out of ****

SidewaysSideways has been out for awhile, but in relatively limited release. With Oscar nominations to bolster its perceived popularity, though, the film finally made it to my small town. Critics love Sideways. Still, it's a movie I would probably have foregone had it not received a couple of Golden Globes and garnered those Oscar nods (come on, let's be honest: a movie about two middle-aged men galavanting through California wine country isn't my idea of a big day at the movies). That's not because I trust the critics or the awards shows, but rather because I like to watch awards shows and then complain—or not—about who won and who didn't.

Sideways is the deceptively simple tale of two middle-aged men, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), who are off to California's wine country for a week to celebrate Jack's impending nuptuals. Miles is a failed writer who teaches middle school English, while Jack is a has-been actor fortunate enough to find himself a fiancée from a wealthy family. Miles has still not recovered from a divorce two years earlier, while Jack isn't entirely sure he's able to commit to one woman even at this later stage of his life. Miles is a wine connoisseur; Jack will drink pretty much anything if there's alcohol in it. Miles is depressed (and depressing), in contrast to Jack's determined happy-go-lucky attitude about everything, particularly women. But the two former college roommates have somehow parleyed that one commonality into a lifelong friendship, and as Jack's best friend and soon-to-be best man, Miles is determined to show Jack a good time whether he himself feels like having one or not.

Although their route to northern California is a little less direct than both would have liked, the two finally arrive at the Windmill Motel which is to be their base for the week. Miles has been to the area many times before, and has a difficult time dealing with memories of himself and his ex-wife in the same places. Jack, meanwhile, determines that not only is he going to have one last fling (or two or three), but that he's going to ensure that Miles "gets some," too. Jack flirts with every female his path crosses, including Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wine pourer at a winery the two visit. Miles, meanwhile, still seems to think he and his ex-wife have a chance of getting back together, and not even Maya (Virginia Madsden), a pretty waitress with an affinity for wine, is able to pique his interest.

As the days pass, Miles and Jack spend time with Stephanie and Maya largely at Jack's insistence. In the most ordinary of circumstances, secrets are revealed, new wounds are opened, and old wounds heal. Hopes are raised and dashed. And throughout, wine—ranging from its ingredients to its making to its many possible tastes and bouquets—plays a supporting role that proves interesting and surprisingly effective.

The acting in Sideways is utterly fantastic. Though Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen are nominated for Oscars™ in supporting roles, many critics believe that Paul Giamatti should have been nominated himself in the Best Actor category. I agree. He seems completely natural as Miles, and it's that apparently effortless acting that takes so much talent and, well, effort to pull off. The editing is flawlessly managed, and there are some very interesting directorial choices (not least of which are some creative camera angles and split screen work I found added significantly to both the entertainment value and the storytelling of the film). The reality depicted via skillful cinemetography is just perfect. And though I rarely comment on the music in a movie (outside of musicals, that is), I have to say that the music for Sideways is incredibly well done. Although a bit unusual (I'm at a loss to describe it other than to say it reminds me of Muzak you might have heard in the 1960's or early 1970's), it's never less than ideal for every scene, and there were times the music had me smiling even before the comedy did.

The script for Sideways may be the best screenplay of the last several years (the Academy got it right when it honored the screenplay with a nomination). Instead of saying the perfect thing, the characters in Sideways seem to say whatever comes into their heads just like real people would do. Between the terrific acting and an entirely natural-sounding script, the characters are completely real. We know these people, or we know people a lot like them. As such, instead of feeling for them, we feel with them. Sideways is at times cynical and depressing; at other times it's uplifting. It's never less than interesting and entertaining, and it's often laugh-out-loud funny (even at those times you're a little bit horrified by what's happening onscreen).

I was bemused from the opening scenes, and knew halfway through the movie that I was seeing that rarest of things: a movie that is everything it's been touted to be and then some. If there are flaws in Sideways, I'm at a loss as to what they were. This movie is not the typical critical darling that's too esoteric for the average movie-goer to care about, nor has it been over-sold in any way. In fact, Sideways is just plain wonderful. I can tell you already which way my complaints will go after this year's Academy Awards if Sideways doesn't take Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture (for the record, I have a sneaking suspicion that Million Dollar Baby will take the screenplay award, and that Ray will be the Best Picture). But the real Best Picture of the year—and I've seen plenty of movies over the last twelve months, including four of the five nominated films—is Sideways, hands down.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Sideways is rated R. There's some rough language and a little nudity. The theme is also quite adult. Sideways is in no way suitable for anyone under 17. But for those older than 17—and the more older than 17 you are, the more likely you are to relate to these characters—I recommend Sideways as one of the most entertaining and well crafted movies it's ever been my great pleasure to see.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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