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Million Dollar Baby

There’s a great film fighting to come out in Clint Eastwood’s new boxing melodrama Million Dollar Baby. It’s not difficult to see it down there, buried in shadows and limping through a trash heap of cultural clichés and self-conscious artfulness, but no amount of critical praise can change the fact that this just isn’t that great film.
When the film opens Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), the owner of a boxing gym and occasional manager, has lost his best fighter to a rival manager. The dingy gym has its fair share of characters besides gravelly Dunn. His perpetual sidekick is a washed-up ex-boxer named Scrap (Morgan Freeman), who works as the gym’s janitor and the film’s cast off oddballs includes a bullying black kid, the movie’s trailer-trash heroine, and a mentally challenged homeless kid called Danger who is a tangled mess of clichés.
The film mythologizes boxing, presenting it as an allegory for life. To make a great fighter you have to strip him down to his basic wood, Scrap says in his helpful voice-over. The magic of boxing lies paradoxically beyond fit bodies, beyond even the heart to win: Boxing is about respect, Scrap tells us. Earning it for yourself and taking it from your opponent.
Mutual respect comes at a high price in this world, however, and love is as unfathomably tragic to Dunn and Scrap as a body that breaks and cannot be rebuilt.  
Dunn unceremoniously ignores Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) when she joins the gym. He is underwhelmed by the stringy, spunky Maggie, and tells her to buzz off when she asks him to train her. Maggie has too many marks against her – she’s a woman in her thirties who was born poor white trash – but Dunn is eventually won over by her verve.
The film begins to evolve into something special when Dunn stops thinking of Maggie as a woman. After a round-one knockout he tells her that he doesn’t train girls, meaning that he believes she is as much a fighter as her male counterparts. Her progression as a fighter and eventual commercial success seems absolutely dream-like against the depressing, badly lit background of the gym – so you just have to know that it will come to an end, and in a bad way, too.
It does.
Million Dollar Baby is about desire in a dark, desperate place, and Eastwood shoots most of the movie in pools of shadows where expressions are given unnatural power. This film-noir technique evokes more than the film’s plot can legitimately convey, but this is how Eastwood hedges his bets. If the gritty reality of the city doesn’t tell you he’s serious, the foreboding lighting will.  
This lighting makes shaving seem like a religious event and reminds us that we’re not just talking about a sport where people beat each other until they fall down, we’re expressing, like, powerful issues of life and death. Think Rocky, drained of all joy, written by Sophocles and directed by Ingmar Bergman and you’re close to what Eastwood is shooting for when he presents Freeman covered in shadows so that only his big belly rises out of his silhouette.  
(A sane person will ask why these characters don’t know about cable television? We don’t have to sit in dim rooms and mope about our existence like characters from a Kafka short story anymore. There are all sorts of colors in our modern rainbow.)
Eastwood uses lighting the same way he uses clichés: As shorthand. Million Dollar Baby is so overwrought with tired cultural archetypes that you would have to be pretty dumb not to feel offended. His white-trash clichés are mean spirited, stupid and insulting to anyone born poor, white or in the South. Maggie’s family has been dredged up from the very worst assumptions of the bourgeois imaginary, a place where the guests from the Jerry Springer show are not only real, but they’re the majority.
When Maggie buys her mother a new home all she can do is complain that this will get her welfare shut off. Yes, that $270-a-month TANF check really trumps a $200,000 home, huh? In Eastwood’s world this might make a kind of sense, and he’s betting you live on the same part of town. But for those of us who’ve seen how the rural poor live it just smacks of intellectual dishonesty and bad art.
But it’s not just the fat, lazy welfare mom who Eastwood conjures from his memory of driving through the projects of Carmel, California. We find out that Maggie’s teenaged sister has a baby – who probably has a bad case of croup – and her brother is a tattooed cartoon sporting a cowboy hat, Lynard Skinnard T-shit and snake-skinned boots. The whole ugly gang of clichés shows up to visit Maggie at one point wearing Disney T-shirts and hats, having mooched off the young fighter and, like all ignorant hillbillies, wasted cash on cheap entertainment…
It should be a crime to send stereotypes like these out in the world.
When all else fails, and we refuse to be seduced by shadow play, cultural clichés, or even good old Scrap’s tour guide of the film, Eastwood smashes us with plot devices that are so melodramatic that they seem ripped off from daytime soap operas. The film’s progression is as relentless and predictable as a stopwatch.
I do not understand the critical response to this movie. You can dress it up however you want: Million Dollar Baby is just a trite boxing film, and it’s not even particularly good at being that since Eastwood cuts the scenes short and almost seems embarrassed to present his characters in athletic poses.
The end is a sucker punch – figuratively and literally – with Eastwood returning once more to the easy target and bringing together all his shoddy bag of tricks to force a kind of cinematic gag reflex.
Eastwood pummels his audience trying to get what he wants, but he loses on points and fails to deliver a knockout punch.

 
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In Good Company

I’m going to forego my usual fair and balanced review this week to drift off to the margins of the new Baby Boomer revisionist film, In Good Company.
For those who care about such things, let me say that the acting in this film is solidly ordinary – Dennis Quaid, in particular, gives the sort of performance that has pock-mocked his career since his breakaway 1983 film Jaws III: 3D – and the film’s romantic chemistry between That ‘70s Show Topher Grace and actress Scarlett Johanssen (who looks just like the actress he plays opposite in the sitcom) is as flat as a 50-something who has mistakenly taken Advil rather than his dose of Viagra. Such tidbits aside, In Good Company is the worst piece of generational propaganda since Falling Down and that nasty bit of misinformation America Dreams, which airs its mad batch of lies every week on NBC. 
Phew.
In Good Company is the story of geriatric slacker Dan (Quaid, looking like a semi-retired porn star) and his attempt to keep his death hold onto his triple-figure income, even when it’s apparent to everyone that he’s about as useful as zits on a bowling ball. When the sport magazine Dan works for is sold out from under him, young hotshot Carter Duryea (Grace) is hired as his supervisor based on the fact that, like, Carter knows how to use a computer and stuff.
To make matters worse for poor old Dan, his daughter Alex (Johanssen) has decided to transfer out of SUNY and into a creative writing program at NYU and develops the hots for Carter, his 50-year-old wife has become accidentally pregnant – I guess they got some of that Bush “abstinence-only” sex ed in the 1950s – and he has to get a second mortgage on his home to pay for the tuition hike and new baby.
Now wait a second here: Didn’t I say that Dan was bringing home a triple-digit income? How is it, one might ask, that this 51-year-old, overpaid middle manager has found himself so financially over his head? This is a time of personal responsibility, isn’t it?
Against any shred of reason, the film deifies old Dan, effectively placing the blame for his disastrous financial situation on Carter and the post-modern, multinational corporation he represents. Danny and his cadre of middle-aged, over-paid buddies are person peoples, ethical powerhouses like fellow Boomer businessmen Kenneth Lay and Donald Trump, and deserve the world and all things in it, damn it.
These Baby Boomers represent moral values, as they did in the 1960s, when they championed better living through chemistry; the ’70s, when they embraced wife swapping and identity politics; the ’80s, when they invented the term yuppie and fought for the tax payers’ revolt that redistributed the wealth in their favor; or the 1990s, when they cut welfare programs and college financial aid.
When Carter explains the concept of synergy to Dan, the washed out ex-jock looks incredulous and says, “But that’s cheating!” I believe these are the exact words Boomer diva Martha Stewart used right before her multi-million dollar K-Mart deal that tied cheap knock-off tablecloths in with her tawdry TV show.
Young people are suspect in the film. Carter’s inspiration is lifted from business guru Teddy K (Malcolm McDowell, back lighted in his one appearance to look like Satan, in case you didn’t get the message) and fueled by the artificial light of caffeine; his Gen-X boss is a shark in a black suit; and old Dan’s daughter Alex has no idea of the financial burden she’s putting the poor guy in. Even Dan’s as-yet-unborn kid is implicated somehow, making the old dud pay for her birth. Slacker.
We’re supposed to see Carter’s desire for career advancement as a moral flaw and cheer when he calls himself an “emotionally guarded, anal-retentive asshole” but look at Dan’s inflated salary as some natural perk for him knowing the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes’, old-boy, secret handshake. This performance would be more convincing if Dan actually read the magazine he seems to care so much about or if he wasn’t just a glorified ad rep, but a writer or editor – but all Dan really represents is his generation of middle managers.
Yes, mourn the poor, underachieving, middle manager Baby Boomer, with his bloated salary and his unrealistic expectations! Sure, worship at the altar of these wacky 50-something’s quest to suck up every last gulp of air in the world!
Lulled into a sense of apathetic bewilderment, I actually heard a fellow Gen-Xer laugh when Dan comes out and says that basically what everyone wants to see is an old guy bitch-slap a young person. This movies lulls your thinking mind to sleep until you accept the rationale of a father telling his 18-year-old daughter that he loved her better when she was five. (Maybe it’s really that Dan, typical of Boomers, likes himself better when he was younger, too.)
The film’s final, filthy victory has Carter returning to the office (after having lost his job) in jeans and a dirty T-shirt. Dan offers him a job, of course – good old Dan – but when Carter is on the way out the lowest loser on the Baby Boomer hit parade, a schmuck who was fired because he wasn’t performing but inexplicitly hired back with a raise, tells the wiz-kid that he looks like a delivery boy.
Listen up kids: This is how your elders want you – poor, dirty, unemployed. This is why they cheered the demise of the dot.coms, even if it cost them some of their 401ks. A generation of swine, these Baby Boomers think that they can change history using doublethink, misinformation and propaganda. 
And it’s up to you to prove them wrong.

 
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