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Million Dollar Baby

Feb. 24, 2005 – "Million Dollar Baby" is about boxing. But it's more, much more, than a boxing movie, critics agree. In fact, Roger Ebert calls it "a masterpiece, the best film of the year."
On the surface it sounds like a boxing movie, ala the Rocky series. But things are not always what they seem. Ebert says he wouldn't dare reveal what the movie is really about because he would not "spoil the experience of following this story into the deepest secrets of life and death."
Here's the story: Clint Eastwood, who directs, produces and stars in the movie, plays Frankie Dunn, a gruff, aging fight trainer who runs a little gym in Los Angeles. When Maggie (Hillary Swank), a gutsy ex-waitress who is determined to become a fighter, comes to plead her case, Frankie is not interested. Not interested in training anyone, let alone a female.
Frankie has seen more than his share of action, not all of it good. Because of a poor decision of Frankie's, his best friend, Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman) had to drop out of the ring with a damaged eye. Dupris, who narrates the movie, had been a contender.
Frankie is a closed-up personality. He has a daughter from whom he has been estranged for years.
Maggie first seems as unreasonably self confident as the gym joke, a skinny no-talent Danger. But her anger, work ethic and physical ability win out, according to Michael Wilmington in the Chicago Tribune.
Though a fine trainer, Frankie was never able to bring his boxers to the highest levels and title shots; some of them were beaten badly.
Maggie persuades Frankie to train her and to take her corner in a series of fights, very excitingly staged, that improbably take her to the brink of a crown. Her unsportsmanlike opponent: champ Billie "The Blue Bear" (played by real-life boxing pro Lucia Rijker).
It would seem that Maggie, as redemptive movies go, would replace Frankie's lost daughter in his affections. But not so fast.
"The movie doesn't lack redemption," says Wilmington, "but it's not the easy kind offered by Sylvester Stallone in 'Rocky' or the social uplift of Rod Serling in 'Requiem for a Heavyweight.' The ending here smacks of blood and sweat – and tears too.
"Right up to its sudden plunge into darkness and beyond, the movie achieves a mellowness and melancholy that recalls the jazzy dissonance of director Eastwood's best work," Wilmington says. "The movie has the taut, grim, cold look of a noir out of time."
Before that happens, there's lots of ring action by variety of gym rats and would-be pugilists (Anthony Mackie as the obnoxious Shawrelle Berry, Jay Baruchel as the ridiculously ungifted "Danger" Barch).
And the movie shows that old codgers still can make you sing. Accompanying the 74-year-old Eastwood is 89-year-old production designer Henry Bumstead, who was Hitchcock's "eye" in the classic film, "Vertigo."
And Paul Haggis' script is based on a boxing story by "F.X. Toole" the pseudonym of actual fight manager/cut man (or first-aid corner man) Jerry Boyd. The original story was published when he was 70. It is part of a collection of stories, "Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner."
Eastwood's "anemic film making method complements the material," says Sean O' Connell in filmcritic.com. He says, "A glance around Frankie's gym reveals stark walls and spare corners. Tom Stern's cinematography is beautiful and bare." O 'Connell says, thinking back, "one almost remembers the movie as being shot in black and white. It's not, but the color scheme feels that muted and unimportant." He says even in the fight scenes, "they seem to be fighting in a long-forgotten community auditorium in the middle of nowhere."
And there are three potential Oscars in the wings. One for Swank, one for Eastwood, and one for "Million Dollar Baby." (In case anyone has been living under a rock, the Academy Awards are at 7:30 p.m. Sunday on Channels 3 and 7.)
And, to add a little irony to the show this year, Swank will face Annette Bening again, as she did five years ago. Swank won the top honor then for her singular performance in "Boys Don't Cry." Bening lost her bid for her role in "American Beauty."
The Boston Globe says "Bening, 46, was considered the early Oscar front runner this year for her role as a luminous English stage diva in Being Julia.' She has already won a Golden Globe, National Board of Review and Golden Satellite award for her performance."
However, the newspaper says, "that was before the release of Clint Eastwood's 'Million Dollar Baby' was brought forward to catch the awards season and Swank captured a Golden Globe of her own as well as a Screen Actor's Guild trophy and a slew of critics awards."
Observers say the relatively unknown Swank, even with her Oscar, may have a tough time making that a repeat performance. Two-time Oscar winners are a rare lot.
The movie starts Thursday at Market Square East. It runs two hours and 12 minutes, and is rated PG-13 for violence, thematic material and language.

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