"Million Dollar Baby": Solid Gold
As you sit watching "Million Dollar Baby," the Oscar nominations seem to click right into place. Best Actress: Hilary Swank. Best Actor: Clint Eastwood. Best Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman. Best Director: Eastwood again. Aided immeasurably by screenwriter Paul Haggis' to-die-for dialogue and a perfectly tuned supporting cast, they've made a movie that shines with life and excitement and sorrow. It's an emotionally overwhelming experience.
Basically, Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, a man who's spent most of his life patching up boxers in their between-rounds corner breaks and now runs a shabby Los Angeles gym. He has a lot of regrets, mainly about his long-estranged daughter (his letters to her always come back unanswered, and he keeps them neatly filed in a sad little shoe box) and about Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris (Freeman), an ex-boxer with whom Frankie worked as corner man on the night, many years earlier, that Eddie got pounded so badly he lost the sight in one eye. Frankie and Eddie are both old men now, and they've stuck together: Eddie manages Frankie's gym.
Frankie has just lost his most promising boxer, Big Willie Little (Mike Colter). Willie wanted a shot at a championship bout, but Frankie was afraid to push him too far too soon, the way he feels Eddie's manager had pushed him years before. So Willie has abruptly dumped Frankie for a more aggressive manager — and he's just won the championship. One day, Frankie, quietly despondent, notices a young woman in his gym punching away at a big training bag. She's Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank), and she hails from trailer-park nowhere, someplace in Missouri. Maggie tells Frankie that boxing is the only thing in her life that makes her feel alive — it's the thing she feels she was meant to do. She wants to be a champ, and she wants Frankie to train her. He dismisses the idea out of hand. She's too old, he says (she's 31), and she has no technique. Also, he doesn't work with girls. (He even calls her "girlie.") But Eddie Dupris sees something in Maggie, and before long, Frankie, to his surprise, starts to see it, too. He takes her on.
The world of women's boxing may seem an unlikely setting for a movie, but Eastwood the director makes it real. He has none of the usual moral pronouncements to make about boxing itself; he's after something else. You do learn quite a bit about the fight game in "Million Dollar Baby" — the complexities of footwork; the necessity of "punching through"; how to snap a broken nose back into place. And some of the fight scenes — furious spasms of violence and elation — are electrifying. But the movie isn't really about boxing. It's about two men at the end of their lives who don't have much to show for their years of hopes, and about a young woman who's losing her youth but refuses to let go of her dream, as hopeless as it may seem to be.
Hilary Swank, all sleek muscles and big-hearted grin, illuminates the character of Maggie — from her sweet concern about an opponent she's just cold-cocked in the ring to the bitter heartbreak she feels at the hands of her scummy back-home relatives — with marvelous artistry. Morgan Freeman gives a glowing performance as Eddie Dupris, a man who's come to terms with what his life has turned out to be, but then starts to suspect there may yet be a redemptive final act. And Clint Eastwood, at age 74, brings the character of Frankie Dunn to life with a minimalist eloquence that never strives for effect. There doesn't seem to be much to his performance beyond the sandpapery rasp of his voice and his beautifully timed deadpan quips, but you feel everything his character is going through; you can even feel the weight of his sad, parched past.
For Eastwood the director, "Million Dollar Baby" is a triumph. His usual unhurried pacing works perfectly here: The movie is a long series of quiet, fascinating revelations that build to a devastating climax. His intuitive restraint is a wonder to behold. There are anecdotal scenes, for example, that are clearly intended as foreshadowing. We see Frankie badgering his parish priest about troublesome aspects of Catholic doctrine (the Immaculate Conception, the Triune nature of God). We learn that he is a devotee of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and we see him poring over a book on Gaelic in spare moments, trying to learn the language. We're also told that the current women's boxing champion, on whose crown both Maggie and Frankie have set their sights, is a vicious and very dirty fighter. All of these plot points do pay off later, but in complex ways — and not exactly those we may have anticipated.
A lesser director might have botched this delicate shadowing of events, and surely wouldn't have achieved Eastwood's unfaltering control of tone. He has of course directed a number of extraordinary movies over the past 30 years — "Mystic River," the jazz bio "Bird," the Oscar-winning "Unforgiven." But "Million Dollar Baby" is his masterpiece. It's one of the best pictures released this year; and while it's generally silly to suggest such distinctions, it may be the best. Don't miss it.
"Hotel Rwanda": Horror Story
Some human catastrophes are so hideous we may be relieved to see them hidden away behind a wall of statistics. The bare numbers might be horrifying, too, but they can help shroud the bloody reality with their bloodless abstraction. They can also make the horror itself easier to turn away from.
In the spring of 1994, in the Central African nation of Rwanda, the country's dominant ethnic group, the Hutus, launched a ferocious slaughter of its hated minority, the Tutsis. Over the course of 100 days, as many as 800,000 lives were brutally extinguished. Many victims were hacked to death with machetes, and children were a special target — the Hutus wanted not only to exterminate the current population of Tutsis (whom they referred to as "cockroaches"), but to wipe out the next generation as well. The Western world knew what was going on, but it turned away. The United States, France and Belgium all sent troops to the area, but only to rescue and airlift out their own citizens; even the Rwandans who worked for those governments in various capacities were left behind to die. When asked whether this cataclysmic disaster — in which a specific ethnic group (and its domestic sympathizers) were targeted for butchery — did not meet any meaningful standard for genocide, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman replied, in a statement of spectacular moral obtuseness, that "the use of the term 'genocide' has a very precise legal meaning, although it's not strictly a legal determination. There are other factors in there as well." The killing continued.
The response of the United Nations was particularly appalling. The U.N. had some 2,500 troops on the ground in Rwanda, but they were rigidly defined as "peacekeepers," not "peacemakers," and they were forbidden to interfere with the killing. Two weeks after the massacre began, the U.N. Security Council in faraway New York voted unanimously to pull virtually all of its soldiers out of the country.
"Hotel Rwanda," the new movie by director Terry George, revisits these awful events through the true story of Paul Rusesabagina. Paul (played by Don Cheadle) is the manager of the Milles Collines, a luxury hotel for foreigners in the Rwandan capital city of Kigali. The hotel is owned by Sabena, the Belgian national airline (Belgium once administered Rwanda as an occupying colonial power), and Paul, trained in Brussels, is a thoroughly Europeanized and cultivated man. He understands the shady ins and outs of his native country — the necessity of occasionally providing free bottles of imported liquor or some Cohiba cigars to influential officials, for instance — but he has no ethnic animus. A Hutu himself, he is happily married to a Tutsi woman named Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), and they have three children.
When a plane carrying the Hutu president of Rwanda is shot down over the Kigali airport by unknown attackers, and the killing begins, Paul at first can't believe the Western powers will allow a mass liquidation to happen. Speaking to an American television journalist named Jack (Joaquin Phoenix), he asks, "How can they not intervene, when they see such atrocities?" Jack sadly tells him what the world's TV viewers, sitting in their comfortable homes, will say: " 'Oh, how horrible.' And they'll continue eating their dinners." Another American, a colonel attached to the U.N. forces (Nick Nolte), tells Paul in outraged disgust how he was forced by Hutu marauders to watch them slaughter children in an orphanage, and how one child begged, "Please don't let them kill me. I promise not to be Tutsi anymore."
As terrified refugees start turning up in front of Paul's hotel, he takes them in — and lies about their presence as long as he can to the Hutu killers who come stalking them. (He was ultimately able to shelter and save the lives of more than 1,200 people.) When a Hutu commander he has known for years tells him that "soon all the Tutsis will be dead," Paul is dumbfounded. "Surely you don't think you can kill them all?" he says. "Why not," the man replies. "We are halfway there already."
"Hotel Rwanda" is a movie of shattering power. We never see actual carnage, but the film's passing details (a leering Hutu killer parading through the streets with a child's stuffed toy impaled on his bayonet) convey what's happening as explicitly as most people could probably bear. The mood of the picture is somber, the music austere. But Don Cheadle's mesmerizing performance raises it beyond an earnest atrocity chronicle. There's one transcendently powerful moment when Paul, surrounded by the mounting ruination of every civilized value he learned to cherish in his years living abroad, attempts to knot the tie he wears with his trim European-style suit, and can't get it right, and finally, in a tear-filled outburst of anguish, rips both tie and shirt off his body. That brief, simple scene says more about the horror of barbarism and the willful ineffectuality of the Western world in resisting it than you might think artistically possible. It's an amazing performance.
For hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, this movie comes 10 years too late. It could have made a difference. In any event, its lesson is one we should carry with us, very tightly gripped, into the future.
"Beyond The Sea": Sinking Sensation
"Beyond the Sea" is a jaw-dropping fiasco, telling us as much about its star, Kevin Spacey, and his borderline-grotesque obsession with the late singer Bobby Darin, as it does about Darin himself. Spacey clearly sees Darin as a titanic figure, and, even more misguidedly, sees himself as a suitable person to portray him. He is wrong in the first instance, and calamitously so in the second.
Darin is an interesting character. He started out in the late 1950s with a handful of teen-pop hits, and then, in 1959, suddenly morphed into a sub-Sinatra swinger with a finger-popping big-band rendition of "Mack the Knife," a record that won two Grammy Awards and propelled him and his new tuxedo to Las Vegas, where he became a popular attraction for many years thereafter. He also appeared in more than a dozen movies, and received an Oscar nomination for his supporting performance in one of them, the 1963 "Captain Newman, M.D." His omnivorous ambition may have been motivated by his health, which he knew to be fragile. (Mortally weakened by a bout of rheumatic fever as a child, he died during open-heart surgery in 1973, at the age of 37.)
Darin's life might make an interesting showbiz movie, but not if he has to be sentimentalized into something more than the skillful professional entertainer he was. "Mack the Knife" is a classic pop record, and some of his other hits, like the 1959 "Dream Lover," the 1960 "Beyond the Sea" and the 1966 "If I Were a Carpenter," are certainly memorable. But whether they justified his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 — ahead of such major figures as Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker and the Isley Brothers — remains questionable. (His hasty elevation into the pantheon may have had more to do with the fact that the chairman of the Hall's board of directors was Darin's former label chief, Ahmet Ertegun, than it did with the influence of the man's music, which was minimal, if not nil.)
Spacey, like a number of latter-day music critics, doesn't see things this way, and his attempted inflation of Darin's actual musical accomplishments makes the movie ring hollow. This is only one of its problems. "Beyond the Sea" has for some reason been misconceived as a semi-fantasy, with a pre-teen Bobby (played by William Ullrich) obtruding upon the action throughout. (At the funeral of Darin's mother, both Bobbys turn up to pay their respects at the coffin, and the kid lays upon the dead woman's chest ... a new Bobby Darin single.) This is the kind of biopic in which someone must exclaim at some point, "You've got it all, Bobby — you're gonna be bigger than Sinatra!" And the hero himself must inevitably announce, "I want it all!"
Spacey, who directed the film, co-wrote it and produced it (well, he's one of the 21 producers listed in the credits), also sings all the songs. He's pretty good, too — but really, how much would you pay to hear anybody sing old Bobby Darin hits? The star also dances quite a bit, because there's quite a bit of dancing in this movie, often when you'd least expect it. In the middle of a scene set in a studio approximation of a Bronx, New York, neighborhood in the 1940s, for example, the street is suddenly thronged with happy hoofers disporting themselves to the strains of "Lazy River."
Most problematic of all, though, is the plain fact that Spacey, at 45, is simply too old to play the young Bobby Darin. The movie's early scenes, in which he cavorts before adoring teenage "Bandstand" fans and cutely courts and then marries teen-movie princess Sandra Dee (played by 20-year-old Kate Bosworth), are more than just a little off; they're creepy.
It's hard to imagine what Spacey, a hugely gifted actor, thought he was doing when he made this movie. And you may find it hard to believe, as you wander out of the theater afterwards, that you've actually handed over money to watch it.