Million Dollar Baby
By now you should all know that Baby was this year's big winner at the Oscars, netting a Best Support Actor award for Morgan Freeman, a second Best Actress award for Hillary Swank (her first was for Boys Don't Cry), a second Best Director award for Clint Eastwood (his first was for Unforgiven), and Best Picture.
Simply put, the movie deserved all of these awards. It's another Eastwood masterpiece coming on the heels of the equally critically-acclaimed Mystic River. Baby is better than River. The character development focuses on just three characters and is deeper. Eastwood's gruffness hasn't been this suited for a role since he played Gunny Highway in Heartbreak Ridge. He's quietly been carving out his niche in the pantheon of great American directors ever since his first effort, 1971's Play Misty for Me, the far superior inspiration for 1987's Fatal Attraction. Did you know that Eastwood also directed High Plains Drifter, The Eiger Sanction, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, Heartbreak Ridge, Bird and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil?
I thought the Academy would be reluctant to award a second Best Actress Oscar to Hillary Swank so soon after her win for Boys Don't Cry and so early in her career, but there really was no way for them not to reward her for this role. First of all, this year was a weak field. Her only real competition came from Annette Bening in Being Julia and Kate Winslet for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both Julia and Mind are comedies (albeit with serious dramatic overtones) and the Academy doesn’t like comedies. Besides Bening and Winslet, Swank was pitted against relative unknowns Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) and Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace). These two fall squarely into the "It's-an-honor-just-to-be-nominated" category and never really had much chance at winning (although Staunton's performance in Drake is exceptional). That being said, one shouldn't attribute Swank's win solely to a weak field. Her Maggie Fitzgerald is a study in trailer-park pluck and determination and Swank carries it off effortlessly.
Freeman serves as the film's narrator and Eastwood's conscience, gently goading him into training Maggie and chiding him for his lack of belief in another fighter who has abandoned him. If this isn't Freeman's best role, the rest of his body of work cried out for an Oscar and here he is rewarded.
Much has been made of Baby's dark turn at the end (which I won't reveal here), but it is this turn which, to use a boxing analogy, gives the movie its punch.
I was predisposed to like this movie. It wasn't because of any reviews, (I don't read them anymore) but because it's based on a comic book, specifically DC/Vertigo Comics' Hellblazer. Hellblazer isn't a marquee title like Batman or Spider-Man but has a devoted following nonetheless.
The movie stars Keanu Reeves in the title role. He is joined by Rachel Weisz (The Mummy, Confidence), Shia LaBeouf (Holes, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle), Tilda Swinton (The Beach, Orlando), Gavin Rossdale (the former lead singer of British rock band Bush, Little Black Book), Djimon Honssou (Galdiator, Amistad) and Peter Stormare (Fargo, Minority Report).
The plot is a complicated mish-mash of Catholic theology, exorcism and lore from the Book of Revelations and not worth delving into here.
Unfortunately, Reeves in his first post-Matrix role is miscast here. First of all, John Constantine is blonde. Secondly, Reeves captures all of Constantine's world-weariness but almost none of his sarcasm. Constantine's quips fall flat from his mouth.
The supporting cast were the standouts. Tilda Swinton's capacity for androgyny, used to great effect in Orlando, was just what was needed for her portrayal of the archangel Gabriel. Rossdale as the demon Balthazar is handsomely menacing and under-utilized.
I found young Shia LaBeouf most impressive as Constantine's apprentice , Charles "Chaz" Kramer. During the film's climax, when Constantine falters, young Chaz steps in to shoulder the burden and he's most impressive at it.
The Flight of the Phoenix
A few months back I posted a review of the remake of The Manchurian Candidate. In it, I was very critical of Hollywood's recent efforts at remakes. Phoenix shows that sometimes Hollywood can take a fine, older film and update it to great effect.
The original starred Jimmy Stewart as Capt. Frank Towns, a pilot for an oil company. While flying a group of roughnecks out of North Africa, their plane crashes. The crew, riven with personal conflicts, is forced to pull together in extraordinarily harsh conditions to build a new airplane out of the wreckage of the old (hence the title reference to the bird of Egyptian mythology).
In this version, Hollywood has kept the core of the story and tweaked it only slightly. Instead of crashing in the Sahara desert, they crash in the Gobi, and one of the main characters is a woman (Australian Miranda Otto, last seen upstaging Liv Tyler in The Lord of the Rings trilogy as the Shield Maiden of Rohan, Eowyn, who is Tyler's rival for the affections of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen)).
This film features a fine ensemble cast with no big stars. Dennis Quaid takes on the role of Towns. Former male model Tyrese Gibson (Baby Boy, 2 Fast 2 Furious) is Town's co-pilot A.J. Giovanni Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) reprises Hardy Kruger's role as the enigmatic and authoritarian airplane designer Elliott. Hugh Laurie (now seen in the lead on Fox's House, and best known for playing Bertie Wooster in PBS' productions of the Wodehouse novels about Wooster and the ultimate "gentleman's gentleman" Jeeves (Stephen Fry)) plays the oil company "suit". Jacob Vargas (Get Shorty, Traffic) is basically stereotype-cast as the Latino cook who longs to return to California and his lady love so they can open a taco stand (honestly) but Vargas, who is becoming an accomplished character actor gives humor and warmth to the role.
Quaid's Towns is actually a little more controlled and contained than Stewart's. Ribisi probably gives the best performance as Elliott. I like Ribisi, but he can be really hit or miss. I loved him as the soul of the squad, the medic Wade, in Saving Private Ryan, yet I hated him as he moped his way through the lead in the awful day-trading drama Boiler Room.
This was the other movie I was most anxious to see. Aviator was the other major contender for Oscar glory this year. Having seen it and Baby I think the Academy was right to honor Baby over Aviator.
Aviator is a hugely entertaining and well-made movie. It's a real piece of bad luck that Scorsese had to find Aviator pitted against Baby. In any other year, Aviator would likely have been the big winner.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives the performance of his young career as the brilliant but eccentric Howard Hughes. The supporting cast is impressive as well, featuring Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth, Veronica Guerin) as Katherine Hepburn, the stunning Kate Beckinsale (Underworld, Van Helsing) as Ava Gardner, Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October, Dress Gray) as Pan Am chief Juan Trippe, Alan Alda (M*A*S*H, Same Time Next Year) as Maine Senator Owen Brewster, and Ian Holm (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fifth Element) as Hughes' chief meteorologist and factotum scientifica.
The movie doesn’t shy away from depicting Hughes' obsessiveness, but it offers only the barest explanation for its origins. The movie opens with a young Howard being bathed by his mother as she warns him of the dangers of disease. Now, this failure to offer compelling insight into what was a large part of the Hughes persona is hardly Scorsese's fault. We don't know, and probably never will, why Hughes was the way he was. But that doesn't stop the viewer from wanting to know the answer to this essential question.
Another question which arose in my mind, and which Scorsese makes no attempt to answer is the contradiction between Hughes' obsession over germs and his sexual appetite. It's hard to imagine a man who is so obsessed by germs bedding down so many starlets. Insight into this paradox in Hughes' character is completely lacking.
In this case, the supporting cast doesn't overshadow its lead (as in Constantine). Instead they complement him to great effect. Cate Blanchett took home this year's Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn as Hepburn. Scorsese makes no effort to use Hollywood trickery to make Blanchett look like Hepburn. Instead, it's all in her speech. She channels Hepburn effectively. How do I know? Because Blanchett's Hepburn is every bit as annoying and abrasive as the real Hepburn. At least we learn that she came by it honestly in a scene in which Hughes is bullied by her family, especially Hepburn's mother, during a weekend lunch.
I hadn't known of Hughes' near fatal crash while test piloting the Air Corps' reconnaissance plane, the XF-11. When we learn the extent of Hughes' devastating injuries, it is amazing he even survived and no surprise that he became addicted to opiates later in life. He must have lived in immense pain for the rest of his days as the result of his injuries.
I am at a loss as to what Alda did to deserve his Best Supporting Actor nomination. He's not in very much of the movie and he doesn't really stand out. In the movie's climax, Brewster is completely upstaged at a Senate hearing in which he seeks to smear Hughes as a war profiteer. The hearing is an attempt to intimidate Hughes into giving up the fight for trans-Atlantic routes for his TWA, and anoint Trippe's Pan Am as the national carrier. Brewster fails miserably and is humiliated by Hughes.
What makes this episode so surprising is that Hughes' eccentricities and reclusiveness, as well as his extensive injuries as a result of his near-fatal crash, are by now well-known to Brewster and Trippe. They mistakenly believe Hughes will give in rather than face the intimidating publicity of a televised hearing. They badly underestimate him, and Hughes totally bests an unprepared Brewster.
I thought Baldwin as Juan Trippe more deserving of a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Baldwin, once one of Hollywood's biggest leading men has undergone a Kevin Bacon-esque transformation into talented character actor.
DiCaprio seems to capture Hughes' essence well. He bears a strong (if not total) resemblance to Hughes but can't quite doff the boyishness that plagued him in Gangs of New York but upon which Stephen Spielberg capitalized in Catch Me If You Can.
I said earlier that Million Dollar Baby deserved to be the big winner at this year's Oscars. It's because, while Aviator is a well-told tale of one of the towering American figures of the 20th century, it simply can't engender the emotion in the audience that Baby does.