The Aviator and Million Dollar Baby

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Dec. 17 2004 8:07 PM

Wings of Desire

Martin Scorsese joins the mile-high club in The Aviator.

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Frankie protects his fighters to the point of jeopardizing their careers, holding them back from title bouts out of a (largely unexamined) fear for their safety. The upshot is that his best fighters are snatched away by more ambitious promoters—which leaves him more or less available when the dirt-poor but plucky Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) shows up and begs to be trained. But surly Frankie wants no part of women's boxing. When she proclaims her toughness, he rasps, "Girly, tough ain't enough." But plucky Maggie keeps plucking—training night and day (in between shifts at her minimum-wage waitress job), peppering Frankie with questions, calling him "Boss." Finally, struck by her pluck, he relents, and, after the requisite training montage, Maggie starts to win big—generally with first-round knockouts. She charges onto the canvas, shining-eyed, lit from within, and lays her opponents flat. But Frankie, characteristically, won't let her go for the title. He has a gut feeling about his fighters' destinies.

Heralded as a masterpiece by critics who consider Eastwood the greatest living American director, Million Dollar Baby is an exercise in obviousness. It's hard to exaggerate the crudity of this film, at least on a narrative level. (The screenplay is by Paul Haggis and is loosely based on stories by the late F.X. Toole.) If anyone but Eastwood—with his macho icon status and soft-pedal delivery (there's almost nothing left of the actor's vocal cords)—were to utter a line like "Girly, tough ain't enough," it would bring down the house. And if anyone but Morgan Freeman—so centered, watchful, canny—had played the sagacious Eddie, who finally takes over from a weirdly belligerent priest (Brian O'Byrne) as Frankie's spiritual adviser, the old-fashioned banality of the part would have flashed like a neon sign. At two points in the film, Maggie's family—her fat, bedraggled momma, single-mother sister, and ex-con brother—show up, and "trailer-trash" would be too subtle a designation: Eastwood practically superimposes dollar signs over their eyes.

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Hilary Swank is totally phony—but that's not, in context, such a bad thing. She throws herself into the part, supplying energy and heart, and she's wiry enough to bring off her fight scenes without an imposing physique. But the role is grotesquely sentimental, its gee-whiz optimism (and saintly subservience) at odds with the character's drive to pummel other women in the ring. I'm not saying the impulses couldn't coexist: It's an irony that might have been mined. But it would take a brainier actress than Swank, and a director open to exploring his characters (or at least rehearsing his performers). 

Eastwood has suffused Million Dollar Baby with his usual gloom—with little sunlight and with characters who are frequently discovered, heads bowed, in pools of light amid the oppressive darkness. His is a remarkably consistent vision, and images from the movie—especially the images of the anguished, irresolute Eastwood himself—might return to haunt you. The sudden swerve into catastrophic territory is no less heavy-handed than the rest of the movie (it's more heavy-handed), but you're not prepared—even with the air of fatalism—for the jump from one shameless genre to another. It's impressive, in the sense that a sucker-punch impresses itself on your skull.

It's hard not to gush about the latest Zhang Yimou picture, House of Flying Daggers (Sony Pictures Classics). No, it's impossible. This is the most intoxicatingly beautiful martial arts picture I've ever seen—and if you think that's damning with faint praise, you missed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang's own Hero, as well as such deliriously surreal supernatural Hong Kong fare as A Chinese GhostStory, The Bride With White Hair, and Tsui Hark's Green Snake. Hero was splendid—arguably the more interesting movie—but a little solemn for my taste, with a stoic protagonist, more self-consciously edited fight scenes, and a greater emphasis on formal tableaux. Daggers is simply a sword-and-dagger extravaganza with some wonderfully florid romantic melodrama: The big fighting sequences bloom out of the characters' passions, the way song and dance numbers do in classic musicals.

It's set in the year 859, in an age of corrupt government and a secret rebel sect called the House of Flying Daggers. The plot is too convoluted—and too full of surprises—to recount here: It involves a blind rebel played by Zhang Ziyi (of Crouching Tiger) and two policemen played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau (the police-department mole in Infernal Affairs). The men are ordered to use the young woman to get to the HOFD leader—but no one is what he or she seems to be, and what seems like a straightforward chase picture becomes a knotty love triangle with twists and hairpin emotional curves.

It would be just an ooh-and-ahh movie—every shot a painting, like Zhang's earlier films and something like Days of Heaven—but the martial arts takes it into another dimension. Zhang has a wowza visual concept for each battle: His camera soars behind arrows and flying daggers, which boomerang and bounce off shields and deftly slice peoples' throats. One sequence will be talked about for years: the battle in the green bamboo forest, the assassins gliding silently down from trees, the fighting on the ground, in branches, in midair: Holy bamboo, Batman! It's furious yet so miraculously fluid—and so elegant. Zhang sets the bar so high I don't know how anyone could top him without redesigning the human body, and even then you'd need his genius for color and composition. Unlike Hero, House of Flying Daggers doesn't bear much thought. You just have to revel in it. ...12:47 p.m.

There weren't too many responses to my latest biopic challenge, perhaps for two reasons: 1) People remember movies but not lines of dialogue; and 2) no one wanted to go back and watch these rotten pictures to write the bad lines down. It might also be that the prizes—The Making of Alexander (first place) and De-Lovely: Behind the Creation of the MGM Motion Picture (second place)—were not much of an incentive. As Michael Fallon points out, the third-place winner should get both books.

Based on the entries, I can sort the typical bad biopic lines into three groups:

1) Clunky attempts by screenwriters to find a middle ground between period and modern diction, often exacerbated by miscast stars.

2) The absurdity of the quotidian in the mouths of illustrious personages—i.e., small talk from larger-than-life people.

3) The need to further the biopic agenda: to frame the central issues of the subject's life and to put his or her trials in historical context.

It's No. 3 that I think is the most instructive, and it's perfectly encapsulated by the line from Beyond the Sea that triggered this exercise: "While it looked like Bobby Kennedy might heal the country, Sandy and I drifted farther and farther apart." That's a classic genre howler—one that should be taught (as a counter-example) in film schools. But our winning entry tops it by a wide margin.