Tag Archives: Hilary Swank

Million Dollar Baby (2004, Clint Eastwood)

Million Dollar Baby has a somewhat significant plot twist. Well, it actually has a couple of them. And neither comes with much foreshadowing. A little in Paul Haggis’s script, which director Eastwood visualizes appropriately, but they’re in the background. The film has its larger than life story to worry about–Clint Eastwood as a stogy old boxing trainer taking on a female boxer, played by Hilary Swank. Except she’s not a kid. She’s a grown woman.

The film opens without cast title cards. Immediately, it’s very smooth. Eastwood has a gym, Morgan Freeman runs it for him. There are assorted goings-on at the gym involving the guys training there. It’s a great supporting cast at the gym–Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter, Anthony Mackie–but the gym is initially just where Eastwood hangs out, not where he interacts. So instead Freeman is telling him the goings-on, which does fantastic setup for their relationship throughout the film. Only when Swank arrives does Eastwood get forced to participate and only after prodding from Freeman.

It’s great character development, funny, sweet, sincere. Eastwood’s very careful not to push too hard on any emotional buttons. He makes sure the actors’ emotions are authentic and doesn’t lay it on with the filmmaking. Tom Stern shoots Million Dollar Baby with crispness for the daytime scenes and sharpness with the nighttime. It works as to how the performances come across, how Joel Cox edits them. If it weren’t for how well Haggis’s script works, especially how it integrates Freeman’s narration, Million Dollar Baby might just be one of film’s finest melodramas. Well, if Eastwood–who does a lot in Million Dollar Baby as an actor and a director–wanted to make a melodrama.

He doesn’t though. Instead, he makes this strangely small, while still big, character study of three people and a location and shared experiences. Most of the film takes place in the gym. It’s the touchstone for the characters and the audience. Eastwood and Haggis never wax on about the hopes and dreams of the boxers at the gym–or even Swank’s. It’s not a meditation on the sport of boxing. It’s this devastating human condition piece, with characters revealing depths the entire length of the film, both through scripted dialogue and the actors’ performances. All of the acting is great; Swank is the best, but Eastwood’s the most surprising. You never once get the feeling Eastwood ever has an idea of what he’s going to say to Swank.

Freeman is great too, in the film’s most “of course” sort of way. He gets to be a bit of a mystery and has some fun with it. He narrates and he’s never untrustworthy or anything, he just isn’t telling his own story and it turns out–thanks to Freeman and Haggis–it adds to the film.

Eastwood also did the music, which is sort of unsurprising and also fantastic. The music is perfect. It’s such a strange film, this gentle American Dream rumination, celebration, and condemnation. It’s always sincere, never cynical, never defeatist, but never hopeful either. Eastwood’s filmmaking is focused character study. The music is restrained and minimal.

So many different things are going on in the film at any moment–whether it’s Swank’s Rocky story, Eastwood’s aging one, Freeman’s supporting mostly wry one, Eastwood and Haggis rely heavily on that Freeman narration. He never disappoints. Million Dollar Baby is kind of a love letter; all of a sudden I’m wondering how the script was written with the narration or if it was cut together later.

Eastwood, Swank, and Freeman don’t reinvent the melodrama; they just perfect the melodramatic character study. Ably assisted by Haggis, Stern, and Cox. Million Dollar Baby is phenomenal.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Paul Haggis, based on stories by F.X. Toole; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox; music by Eastwood; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Eastwood, Haggis, Tom Rosenberg, and Albert S. Ruddy; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald), Morgan Freeman (Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris), Brían F. O’Byrne (Father Horvak), Jay Baruchel (Danger Barch), Anthony Mackie (Shawrelle Berry), Mike Colter (Big Willie Little), Lucia Rijker (Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman), and Margo Martindale (Earline Fitzgerald).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE PLAY TO THE WHISTLE BLOGATHON HOSTED BY KIRA OF FILM AND TV 101 AND JOSH OF REFFING MOVIES.


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Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992, Fran Rubel Kuzui)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is so technically inept, not even Carter Burwell turns in a good score. Most scenes are just trying to decide who’s doing a worse job, director Kuzui, cinematographer James Hayman or editors Jill Savitt and Camilla Toniolo. Overall, it’s obviously Kuzui, but the editing in the first half by far worse than the photography. But the photography in the second half is so awful, it’s difficult to hold anything against the editing.

And then there’s Joss Whedon’s script. Regardless of whether or not someone rewrote it, it’s still awful.

But there’s a very likable quality to Buffy–Kristy Swanson. She does really well in the film. She has actual chemistry with Donald Sutherland and Luke Perry, even though Kuzui directs the actors terribly. Swanson weathers Kuzui’s direction best, Sutherland worst, Perry somewhere in between. Kuzui doesn’t have a sense of humor, which doesn’t help things. But Swanson gives a rather good performance. The film fails her over and over.

Perry manages to be likable whenever he’s around Swanson, until the film gets uncomfortable with her in the driver’s seat of their romance.

The vampires are lame. Paul Reubens is awful (Kuzui’s lack of humor fails him the most), Rutger Hauer isn’t much better. He and Swanson are awful together.

The movie runs eighty minutes and change. The first half, as Swanson trains to become the Vampire Slayer, moves pretty well. Kuzui and Hayman don’t do well, but they do okay. It’s trying to be a high school movie with vampire hunting. Swanson gets a great character arc and the script’s better one liners. Kuzui doesn’t seem to understand how the one liners work, but Swanson does. In contrast, Perry flops whenever he gets one of the one liners.

It ought to be a whole lot more entertaining, but the brisk pace of the first half and Swanson do get it to the finish. And, for what’s got to be the first time ever, I’ve got to single out the hair stylist–Barbara Olvera–she does a fantastic job with Swanson’s various styles.

I wish Buffy were better. It’s not, but I really wish it were. Swanson deserved it, Perry even deserved it. But really Swanson. She effortlessly goes from being likable to good. Shame the movie doesn’t even manage the former.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui; written by Joss Whedon; director of photography, James Hayman; edited by Jill Savitt and Camilla Toniolo; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Lawrence Miller; produced by Kaz Kuzui and Howard Rosenman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Kristy Swanson (Buffy), Donald Sutherland (Merrick), Paul Reubens (Amilyn), Rutger Hauer (Lothos), Luke Perry (Pike), Michele Abrams (Jennifer), Hilary Swank (Kimberly), Paris Vaughan (Nicki), David Arquette (Benny), Randall Batinkoff (Jeffrey), Andrew Lowery (Andy), Sasha Jenson (Grueller), Stephen Root (Gary Murray), Natasha Gregson Wagner (Cassandra) and Candy Clark (Buffy’s Mom).


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Boys Don’t Cry (1999, Kimberly Peirce)

Director Peirce makes an interesting choice with Boys Don’t Cry–she never gives the viewer enough information about Hilary Swank’s protagonist. As a result, it’s occasionally difficult to think of Swank as the protagonist. For the first eighty or so minutes of the film, Swank is just this skinny little guy who falls in with a questionable crowd of rednecks. Nothing in Swank’s performance indicates the viewer is supposed to take the character as anything but male (but Peirce frequently contradicts that approach, sometimes for dramatic purposes, sometimes for filmic).

Boys is often pointlessly over-stylized with time lapse photography and, at one absurd point, Peirce and co-writer Andy Bienen suggest its the way Chloë Sevigny (as Swank’s girlfriend) sees the world. But not because she’s huffing whip-its, which is the only reasonable explanation.

But the performances Peirce gets are astounding (so much so, when the actual facts show up at the end, there’s a disconnect between the actors and the people they portrayed). Swank’s fantastic–in that first eighty minutes, Boys is a shocking study of masculinity as Swank experiences it and the viewer does with him. Sevigny’s great. Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III as the redneck villains are amazing; Sarsgaard gets more depth, so when Peirce shows it for psychopath Sexton, it’s even more affecting.

Excellent supporting performance from Alicia Goranson.

Awful Nathan Larson score.

Peirce can’t crack Boys; she’s too fixed on having a thesis statement. The actors ably carry the film to success.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Kimberly Peirce; written by Peirce and Andy Bienen; director of photography, Jim Denault; edited by Tracy Granger and Lee Percy; music by Nathan Larson; production designer, Michael Shaw; produced by John Hart, Jeff Sharp and Christine Vachon; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Hilary Swank (Brandon Teena), Chloë Sevigny (Lana Tisdel), Peter Sarsgaard (John Lotter), Brendan Sexton III (Tom Nissen), Alison Folland (Kate), Alicia Goranson (Candace), Matt McGrath (Lonny), Rob Campbell (Brian) and Jeannetta Arnette (Lana’s Mom).


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Birds of America (2008, Craig Lucas)

The sub-ninety minute indie film is practically becoming a genre (I’m assuming these short lengths have a lot to do with sales to commercial cable–ninety minutes fits perfectly into a two hour slot on TNT). Birds of America is both a part of this burgeoning genre and the post-Little Miss Sunshine indie dysfunctional family comedy genre. But it isn’t actually funny, which sets it apart. It starts out like it’s going to be funny and the abbreviated opening is one of the big problems.

Matthew Perry is the lead, even narrating the opening (which makes the film sound like a sequel to a sitcom he never made but could have–a teenager has to take care of his eccentric siblings following their parents’ deaths), but he’s absolutely ineffectual for the first fifteen minutes. In a film running, not including the end credits, eighty minutes, fifteen makes a big difference. He’s fine, but he’s not doing anything special. Worse, the supporting cast is more centrally featured in the opening and there isn’t a strong performance among them. Hilary Swank’s got a strange small role as an annoying neighbor, but Swank’s not funny enough with it (Parker Posey would have been much better). She’s nowhere near as bad as the guy playing her husband, Gary Wilmes. Wilmes seems like an infomercial presenter (for what, I can’t imagine), not someone who ought to be acting in a scene with Matthew Perry, even a disinterested Matthew Perry.

As Perry’s wife, Lauren Graham’s annoying. The characters are all poorly defined in the opening and, while Perry gets to come around into a fully drawn person, Graham’s big change is too abrupt. She does better in the end than she does in the beginning, but Elyse Friedman’s script is particularly unkind to her.

When Ben Foster and Ginnifer Goodwin show up as Perry’s siblings and Birds of America forms its trinity, it finally works. It’s not revolutionary–even though Foster and Goodwin have interesting story arcs (Goodwin in particular), Perry’s tenure-obsessed teacher story is lame–but it’s solid. The trio works great together. Foster’s amazing, Goodwin’s excellent and Perry’s subtle but assured transition to leading man makes the opening weakness hard to remember.

Birds of America takes a place in that missing American genre–the family drama. If it weren’t for the recognizable from television faces–not including Foster, who’s got to be the only character actor of his generation–Birds would be almost entirely unassuming. It presents its story straightforwardly and lets it play out for the viewer. Some things work, some things don’t. More work than not. The film’s best when it’s taking place over one night, which cuts the short running time a little slack. But the direction really doesn’t hurt.

Craig Lucas shoots Super 35, but his widescreen composition is one of the best I’ve seen for that medium (maybe even since Mann and Manhunter). Lucas is in love with the frame and since most of Birds takes place indoors–being that family drama–he composes some fantastic shots.

Birds of America isn’t any kind of singular film event, but it’s a solid picture in an era without many solid pictures.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Craig Lucas; written by Elyse Friedman; director of photography, Yaron Orbach; edited by Eric Kissack; music by Ahrin Mishan; production designer, John Nyomarkay; produced by Jana Edelbaum, Galt Niederhoffer, Celine Rattray and Daniela Lundberg Taplin; released by First Look Studios.

Starring Matthew Perry (Morrie), Ginnifer Goodwin (Ida), Ben Foster (Jay), Lauren Graham (Betty Tanager), Gary Wilmes (Paul), Daniel Eric Gold (Gary), Zoë Kravitz (Gillian) and Hilary Swank (Laura).


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