Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Million Dollar Baby – 2004

Director – Clint Eastwood

Starring – Hillary Swank, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman

Elvis or the Beatles?  Sammy Hagar or David Lee Roth? Biggie or Tupac?  If you like one, liking the other is out of the question.  Your stance on each of these pressing issues has the power to determine what category others lump you into, and more importantly, it determines where you place yourself.  I would argue that, as in the music world, so too in the world of film.  One crucial example of this “either, or” mentality is found in the career of Clint Eastwood.  Either you like him as an actor (generally his earlier career), or you like him as a director (equally as generally his later career).  I’ve found that I like one, and definitely am not  a fan of the other.

Eastwood, for the entirety of his career has stayed busy, prolific even.  Stories of his work ethic are stuff of legend in Hollywood, no matter which side of the camera he finds himself on.  As an actor, he has a steely intensity that gave life to roles such as “Dirty” Harry Callahan of the Dirty Harry series, the man with no name from his spaghetti western days, and Private Kelly of Kelly’s Heroes.  As a director, this intensity translates to a certain austerity, an emptiness that never feels finished.  Sure it has all the bells and whistles, star actors, polished editing, and usually an unflinching story, yet his direction has always left me wanting.

It’s fair to say that I prefer Eastwood’s acting more than his directing, and thusly was not a huge fan of Million Dollar Baby.  Eastwood’s bifurcated tale of the never-say-die female boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald, and her curmudgeonly old trainer Frank Dunn is actually made up from two different short stories from the same author, which would explain the distinctly different nature of the two halves.  Fitzgerald, played here by Swank, manages to worm her way into Dunn’s heart through sheer pluck and can do attitude.  Luckily for the both of them she turns out to be a decent fighter despite her age, and apparent lack of skill at the beginning.  She ends up in a series of fights, heading for the top until tragedy strikes.  Without giving away too much, Fitzgerald and her trainer / father-figure are forced to make some pretty hard choices by the end of the film.

This film, just like Mystic River, Invictus, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and yes even the beloved Unforgiven, is missing something.  The problem comes in when I can’t put my finger on exactly what is missing.  The stories, and acting all seem somehow sewn together and incomplete.  We get almost no detail about how Fitzgerald came to be so pugnacious or why Dunn ended up as such a grouch.  We’re given a little bit of a clue as to why he accepts her with the inclusion of a few lines about how he is estranged from his daughter, but most other details are left to our imagination.

Acting wise Eastwood has the goods (I mean he does have a career filled with grumpy characters), but unfortunately Swank doesn’t.  Now I have never really been a fan of her, but critically speaking she seems to only have one set of traits that she falls back on for each and every role that she takes.  Abused (emotionally or physically, she is versatile enough for both) hillbilly characters.  Morgan Freeman, is always good at what he does, unfortunately most of his acting is used as a storytelling method in the very unnecessary voice over segments.  His considerable talent is wasted in the role he’s given, all I can guess is that Eastwood just likes having him in his movies.

The two stories that make up the film aren’t enough, by themselves, to flesh out a feature-length film no matter who is directing them, but with Eastwood’s minimalist style it falls flat quicker than it otherwise would.  While it isn’t a terrible movie, I think it may have been included on this list because it was at the time a controversial film that people were talking about.  It doesn’t hold up, and most likely will be replaced at some point in future editions of this book to make room for something else.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“Live your dreams. Get paralyzed.  Kill yourself.” – Ashley

Le Million (AKA: The Million) (1931)

Le Million (AKA: The Million) – 1931

Director – Rene Clair

Starring – Jean-Louis Allibert, Annabella, Raymond Cordy and Rene Lefevre

Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in the musical genre.  Films like Chicago, Moulin Rouge, and most recently Nine have been reminding people that, at one point in filmic history, the musical was king.  Ever since the advent of the “talkie” the desire to see something more, a brilliant new spectacle has inspired audiences to come back to the theaters again and again.  Eventually, thanks to many different factors, the dissolution of the studio system, wars both hot and cold, and the drive for realism in film, the musical receded into the background eventually getting lost altogether.  But people forget how revolutionary this genre actually was, which is a perfect example of why films like Le Million should be seen…to remind us.

The story is a rather simple one, Michel a poor, yet overly amorous artist, is swamped by his debts and hounded by his creditors.  Good news comes when he learns that he’s won the lottery, but the bad news is that his girlfriend, jealous of his flirting, has given away the coat containing the winning ticket to a passing stranger running from the cops.  From this point the mad dash to recover the coat, and claim the money starts at a fevered pitch.

The story itself does little to imbue the feeling of joy one gets while watching this movie, instead it is in the performances, the sight gags, and the musical numbers.  At times, the routines come from out of nowhere, springing to life at the tail end of a sentence, while others are a little more elaborate and choreographed.  Either way, each song, and accompanying dance, spread the fun further and further along to such a degree, that I wish it had been longer (and it is a real rarity for me to say that about a musical)!

Set up and executed in much the same way as a stage play, each of the main sets (the artist’s studio, the opera house, the resale shop, etc.) consisted of painted backdrops and was decorated with props.  The actors played out their scenes, transforming the open space to fit the needs of the story, rather than finding specific locations for each set.  The most memorable scene may very well have been the opening shot, panning across the rooftops of Paris, combining matte painting and live action rather seamlessly given the timeframe in which it was filmed.   Despite the fact that one of the most striking shots in the film was also the first one, the excitement builds continuously throughout, culminating in the beautifully conceived and realized Opera scene, where the two main characters are stranded with each other, hiding onstage during the performance.  Everyone sits on the edge of their seat, waiting for the curtain to drop so the chase can resume.

Released just 4 years after the debut of sound in motion pictures with The Jazz Singer, Le Million utilizes music, sound effects, orchestration, and silence better than a lot of films released today.  A lot of the films prat-falls and sight gags are garnished with cymbal crashes, and blasts from the brass section.  Missing dialogue is filled in with music cues, and chase sequences and crowd scenes are juxtaposed through the addition of traffic sounds and other sound effects.

The bottom line is that this film is great fun, even if, like me, you are not a big fan of musicals or gratuitous singing.  Don’t get me wrong, I like music, but singing and dancing for singing and dancing’s sake doesn’t take the place of plot and naturalistic acting in my book.  That being said, Le Million pulls it off anyway.  Definitely worth my, and your, time!