Monday, January 10, 2005

MOVIES: Million Dollar Baby, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Clint Eastwood is THE MAN. Did you know Million Dollar Baby is the 25th feature film he's directed? Word. I don't normally think of Eastwood as a director first, but man, he's got a longer, more varied, and, with the likes of Pale Rider, Bird, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and his masterpiece Unforgiven, often a higher quality record as a director than just about anyone else you could name. The Man, he is.

Million Dollar Baby is right up there with his best -- not just his best; anyone's best. Certainly it's one of the best films of 2004 (too bad I didn't see it until 2005, or it would've made my list). It's near perfect.

Clint Eastwood is of course The Man, as a boxing trainer who's never taken a fighter to the title. Morgan Freeman is wonderful as always as Clint's friend and employee, a boxer who lost sight in one eye in his final match. But this is Hilary Swank's movie, and she is a thrill, a marvel to behold. After Boys Don't Cry, I didn't think we'd ever be seeing her at the Oscars again, but this is a slamdunk. She's even better here. It's a stunning performance, both emotionally and physically.

The boxing scenes are tremendously exciting, and Swank has obviously gone through intensive training to make those scenes as real as possible. But this film isn't simply a chick Rocky. It takes you in directions you never expected it to go. It's funny, it's smart, it's uplifting and it's heartbreaking.

If Clint Eastwood has a style as a director (and it sometimes seems his style is to have no style), it's possibly best seen in the way he trusts his actors, the way he gives them room, gives them the time and space they require to generate the emotion and empathy needed to create fully-realized characters. He doesn't rush anything. Eastwood and Freeman have a scene together in which they talk about the holes in Freeman's socks, and it's so funny and warm and memorable, but it's of no importance at all to the film as a whole. But it's important to those characters, it's revealing in quiet ways. I don't think many directors would've spent so much time on a scene like that, trusting the acting to make it work, and trusting the audience to stay focused on it.

Bill Murray is also THE MAN. It's amazing to me that it took so long for directors to realize what a great talent he is, above and beyond simply being Bill Murray. Wes Anderson is to thank for that, by giving Murray his career-redefining role in Rushmore. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou marks Anderson's and Murray's third team-up, and the first with Murray in the starring role. It's not quite as great as Rushmore, but it's still pretty damn good.

It's a visually stunning film, with a crazily inventive plot. Bill Murray is great in a role that requires him to be by turns an egomaniacal adventurer, a vulnerable lothario, a stone cold action hero, and a tired, floundering old man. Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, and Jeff Goldblum are all entertaining as well, and I love Cate Blanchett so much that it's possibly illegal.

I have a couple reservations about the film. It's so suffused with archness and irony and cool that the moments which should be pure and poignant don't have the impact they otherwise would have. And Anderson, for all his many skills as a director, still hasn't quite learned how to film a believable action scene. He's almost there, but not quite.

But it's very funny, very well-acted, and it's got a great soundtrack, primarily Bowie songs, some of which are translated into Portuguese. And the ending, with everyone walking toward the camera during the credits, is straight out of Buckaroo Banzai, and how awesome is that? (Hint: very awesome.)

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