Friday, March 25, 2005

Movie Review: Million Dollar Baby

United States, 2004
U.S. Release Date: 12/17/04 (limited); 1/7/05 (wide)
Running Time: 2:17
Rated: PG-13 (Violence, mature themes)
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman

Director: Clint Eastwood
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Paul Haggis, Tom Rosenberg, Albert S. Ruddy
Screenplay: Paul Haggis, based on stories from "Rope Burns" by F.X. Toole
Music: Clint Eastwood
Studio: Warner Brothers


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Is Million Dollar Baby the best picture of ’04? You bet. Weighing in with minimal advertising expenses and slim expectations of greatness, this film stunned audiences at the prime moment and made its run for the Academy Awards. Million Dollar Baby deserves its four Oscar accolades – including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor – because the film in itself is an antidote to bad cinema. In fact, this powerful, profound, and pristine punch is the very reason that makes being a film critic rewarding.

Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is a long-time boxing trainer and gym owner, who in an attempt to both find answers to his questions and help ease his guilt and pain from his estrangement with his own daughter, attends Mass services daily. After losing his prized fighter to another, more go-getting, trainer, Frankie soon encounters a 31 year-old female boxer named Maggie (Hillary Swank), who wants him to take her under his wing. Frankie initially balks at the idea of training a “girl,” but after much persistence and dedication from Maggie, and some convincing from his long-time pal, Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), Frankie eventually agrees to train the girl. From then on, Frankie works with Maggie, the poor Southern-born waitress with an ambitious attitude, on her uphill climb to superstardom. In the process, an undividable bond forms between the three.

Without ambiguity, not only is Million Dollar Baby one of the best modern-day boxing pictures, but it is also one of the best three-pronged character studies of the new millennium. By the film’s halfway mark, the characters are so well developed that the audience is already able to relate to them, laugh with them, and cry for them. At times, the film’s emotions may run high and the uppercuts may hit hard, but Million Dollar Baby makes all the right moves.

With Eastwood at the wheel, it is one rare occasion where having the director step into the view of the camera is an applaudable plus. Eastwood is unquestionably at the top of his game both in front of and behind the camera. In front of the lens, Clint dishes out a nominee-worthy, gruff, yet largely sensitive, Frankie. Behind the action, Clint both blends radiance and darkness together to create a sound sense of visual acuity and pieces together the fight scenes to create some of the most effective boxing sequences on screen.

As for the other two members of the tremendous trifecta of character portrayals, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman exude enough confidence and courage to impress every moviegoer. While I don’t believe that Freeman’s role is anything to gawk at in amazement, his role as the blind-in-one-eye ex-boxer still serves-up superb narration and provides for an inspired side-story. On the other hand, Hilary Swank is as impressive as ever; her depiction of Maggie piles on the perfect pinch of fortitude, heart, and emotion—making Swank beyond worthy of her 2005 statuette.

As a boxing picture, Million Dollar Baby is right up there with Rocky and Raging Bull. In the end, Baby is about so much more than a few fist fights. After its stunning plot development, the concentration shifts from sports clichés to poignant elements of human drama. The story is about love, strength, family, willpower--everything we love to see in a picture. Both the untrodden territory that that film contends with and the heft that Eastwood places on the characters’ humanity, make Million Dollar Baby not only the best film of the year, but also Eastwood’s opus.

If you are a sucker for hard-hitting dramas, then Million Dollar Baby is a film for you. However, this must-see recommendation comes with one caveat: Baby boasts one heck of a right cross. Once you withstand the third act’s powerful blow, you will surely discover that amongst its unique character back-stories, Million Dollar Baby is a flawless feature filled with bravura and one film that should be cradled in your collection. (**** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Monday, March 21, 2005

Movie Review: The Rapture

United States, 1991
Running Time: 1:40
Rated: R
Cast: Mimi Rogers, David Duchovney, Patrick Bauchau, Kimberly Cullum, Will Patton

Director: Michael Tolkin
Producers: Karen Koch, Nancy Tenenbaum, Nick Wechsler
Screenplay: Michael Tolkin
Music:
Studio: New Line Cinema


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The tagline to this 1991 religious drama reads: “Rapture (rap'chur) 1. ecstatic joy or delight. 2. a state of extreme sexual ecstasy. 3. the feeling of being transported to another sphere of existence. 4. the experience of being spirited away to Heaven just before the Apocalypse.” Frankly, this may be one of the most appropriate feature film titles ever conceived; The Rapture is a daring amalgamation of sexuality, faith, and a resilient fundamentalist viewpoint of the End of Days.

While definition four from the tagline serves as the crux of the storyline, I highly doubt anyone will be experiencing definition one after viewing this imperfect and misguided allegory. While The Rapture may provoke a small amount of thought, concerning the word-for-word biblical outlook of Judgment Day, it may also provoke its viewers into a sheer state of annoyance and dissatisfaction.

Sharon (Mimi Rogers) is an information operator by day and a full-fledged adulterer by night. To escape the monotony of her day job, Sharon spends her evenings hunting for couples who are willing to engage in casual group sex with her and her friend Vic (Patrick Bauchau).

After a series of ménage a trois’ and foursomes, Sharon begins to feel a vacancy in her soul and starts to search for the purpose and meaning in her life. It is not until Sharon overhears a discussion of religion, encounters a pair of door-to-door evangelists, and nearly commits suicide, that she finds God and opens the gateways of her heart to Jesus. She ditches Vic and her sex-crazed lifestyle and converts Randy (David Duchoveny), one of her previous partners, from Atheist to Christian.

Fast forward six years. Sharon is now married to Randy and has a daughter named Mary (Kimberly Cullum). They are members of a fundamentalist sect that follow the every word of a prophesizing boy. Sharon, Randy, and Mary all adhere to the boy’s every word and as a result, anticipate the End of the World to transpire within one year. However, after Randy is suddenly murdered, Sharon takes her daughter to the desert to await the rapture that will raise them to Heaven.

Hats off to The Rapture for being an intimidating literal depiction of the Apocalypse, but shame on writer/director Michael Tolkin for creating a lead character that is impossible to feel sympathy for. After losing her husband, the action that Sharon executes is unsettling and deranged. At this instant and from here on, it is very easy to perceive the film’s main character as “Sharon the Psycho” and not “Sharon the Heroine.”

Substandard movies stem from substandard screenplays, and The Rapture is a perfect case in point. With a slew of clunky dialogue, an unexpected jump to six years later, and a cynical climax, writer/director Tolkin further fills up his bag of mistakes. In addition, The Rapture contains a set of sub-par special effects, a pushy score that tries to dictate how the audience should feel, and an unrealistic scene at a fast food window. In fact, at one point, I was unsure if the film was going to progress beyond appearing as an ad showing how long Mimi Rogers could hold smoke in her lungs and then blow it out through her nostrils.

With Mimi Rogers’ frenetic and overwrought role, The Rapture comes off as an occasionally enrapturing, yet second-rate, picture that doesn’t attempt to appeal to any set demographic. In the end, its portrayal of a woman’s journey from sin to salvation and back – that all-the-while contains the challenging themes of hedonism, self-discovery, and religious zealotry – is unnerving, yet in the long-run unrewarding. (** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Monday, March 14, 2005

Movie Review: The Apostle

United States, 1997
U.S. Release Date: 12/19/97 (limited)
Running Time: 2:12
Rated: PG-13 (Mature themes, mild profanity, brief violence)
Cast: Robert Duvall, Miranda Richardson, Farrah Fawcett, John Beasley, Walter Goggins, Billy Bob Thornton, June Carter Cash, Todd Allen, Rick Dial, Billy Joe Shaver

Director: Robert Duvall
Producer: Rob Carliner
Screenplay: Robert Duvall
Music: David Mansfield
Studio: October Films


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Ever since the mid ‘80s, Robert Duvall has wanted to produce The Apostle. However, considering every Hollywood studio had declined to take a chance on such an unconventional picture, the film did not adorn the theatres until 1997—when Duvall dug into his own pocket to finance the project.

Writer, director, and star, Robert Duvall, has created a rare and exceptional character study of a truly humble, yet at times troubled, human-being. With Duvall’s energetic sermons and documentary-like direction, The Apostle cradles the ambiance of Say Amen, Somebody; all the while, it grasps its unadulterated originality with a darn-good dose of drama.

The film begins in 1939, as we watch a young Texan boy sit and listen to the Pentecostal praises of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost. Fast-forward nearly six decades later and we discover the same young boy – now an aging preacher – named Euliss Dewey (Robert Duvall)—whom everyone calls “Sonny.” Sonny typically spends every waking hour at the mercy of the Lord. Be it leading revivals throughout the Deep South, or cooking up some Southern Gospel gusto for his very own Texan congregation, Sonny takes great pride in his work as an Evangelist.

Because Sonny spends so much time serving the Lord and spreading His Word, his wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) justifies her decision to commit adultery with a much younger minister of the faith named Horace (Todd Allen). Sonny becomes astute of the affair, but before he can act on this knowledge, Jessie finds a loophole in the church’s regulations and deprives him of both his church and his job. In a state of bitter rage, Sonny clubs Horace in the head with a baseball bat—leaving his wife’s new man comatose. After attacking Horace, Sonny fakes his death, and flees to wherever the Lord chooses to lead him.

Following a self-baptism and a change of name from Sonny to “The Apostle E.F.,” the distraught preacher arrives in the little town of Bayou Boutte, Louisiana. There, he meets a retired minister named C. Charles Blackwell (John Beasley), who decides to help “The Apostle” start a new church. Together, the two men strive to spread the Christian faith and the power of prayer. As for “The Apostle,” he is on a personal Odyssey for atonement, absolution, and deliverance.

In a sequence early on in the film, Sonny speaks to a severely injured man who – moments beforehand – was in a terrible car crash. Sonny asks the man if he is ready to accept Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. In what could be the man’s final moments, he sheds a tear and nods. This sequence depicts not only the authenticity of Sonny’s devotion to the Gospels, but also his confidence in the power of touching people through prayer. It also sets the stage for Sonny’s personal quest to attain redemption and his enduring effort to sermonize the story of Jesus to any soul willing to listen.

Despite his one disastrous fault, we see Sonny as a good man. Even with his own psychosomatic demons, he values humility and togetherness and elects to bring peace to the hearts of many. Sonny possesses such a lively spirit and inspiring intensity that – Christian or not – it is enrapturing to see so much conviction embodied in one man.

Along side Robert Duvall’s beguiling lead portrayal, he attains superlative support. Farrah Fawcett, Miranda Richardson, June Carter Cash, and a brief appearance by Billy Bob Thornton as the town’s racist troublemaker, all add to The Apostle’s opulence. In addition to the “big” names, in order to develop a strong sense of sincerity, Duvall selected both real-life preachers and earnest members of the Southern Christian community to join the cast in the film’s smaller roles. Still, it is Robert Duvall who single-handedly elevates The Apostle to its level of boldness. Not only is “The Apostle” an unforgettable cinematic character who would “push away the moon and the stars to get to Heaven,” but it is also an outstanding independent production whose impact is poignant and righteous. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005