Saturday, January 29, 2005

Reel To Reel:
Million Dollar Baby

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Hilary Swank
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Boxing Violence, Mild Language, Some Intense Scenes

Preconceived Notions: Up for multiple Oscars and a knockout with critics. So why is it taking so long to open in wide release?
The Bottom Line: Some things are worth waiting for.

I am continuously baffled by why, if a film is so great, it plays for weeks in New York and Los Angeles before opening in the rest of the country. The two coasts have seen Million Dollar Baby for more than a month now. Marketing strategies and making the deadline for Oscar contension are surely the answer, but they are lame excuses given the weight of this movie.

Million Dollar Baby is one of the best boxing pictures ever made. Some would say the heavyweight championship goes to Raging Bull, but we could go 15 rounds sparring about which film is better and end in a draw. Hilary Swank plays Maggie, a struggling waitress who wants to be a boxer. She comes from a trailer trash family, eats scraps so she can save her real money for another day, and doesn't own a television. She's reluctantly mentored by Frank (Eastwood), a worn-down boxer, trainer and cutman who's still shadow-boxing moral dilemmas. Morgan Freeman plays Scrap, Frank's partner in a boxing gym, another grizzled old fighter who narrates the story and serves as both a referee and mentor to both Frank and Maggie.

Maggie approaches Frank in the early minutes of the film looking for a trainer. Frank brushes her off with a growl: "I don't train girls." But Maggie, with nowhere to go but back to her trashy roots, keeps on working out at the gym and Scrap sees a champ in the making. Frank finally takes her on after losing an up-and-coming fighter to a manager who can get him better action.

You can see a remake of Rocky here, right down to Burgess Meredith's crusty old trainer. But to put Million Dollar Baby in the ring with that film is like putting Gone With The Wind and Glory in a title match. Baby, produced and directed by Eastwood, transcends the boxing-film genre. The movie isn't about people fighting each other; it's about people fighting for their lives and livelihoods against the demons of povery, guilt, and phyical inferiority. The film has enough story and charcter depth for two pictures. But it's one. As Frank points out, you only get one shot at the title. And Million Dollar Baby packs a heck of a whallop.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Reel To Reel:
Meet The Fockers

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Barbara Striesand
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Language, Sexual References

Preconceived Notions: Meet The Parents was a gas.
The Bottom Line: Stiller looks lost in his own movie, but Hoffman steals the show.

Meet The Fockers, that sequel with the dirty name, only rates 40 percent on the critics' tomatometer -- meaning only 40 percent of their compilation of newspaper and magazine reviews were favorable. So it seemed odd Fockers grossed $200 million in less than a month -- and much of that on opening weekend. I had to find out why.

The answer is simple: It's a funny movie. It's crass, repetitive, over-the-top and awash in cheap, crude laughs, but it's ultimately funny. Funny movies make gobs of money. You could say the same things about Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, also one of the funniest movies ever made. Or Airplane! Neither of those films are considered cinematic art in critics' circles.

Here's all you really need to know about the plot. Greg Focker (Stiller), engaged to Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo), met his fiancee's stuffy parents -- Jack (De Niro) and Dina (Blythe Danner) in the first film. Now it's time for her parents to meet his: laid-back Floridians Bernie (Hoffman) and Roz (Striesand). So under one roof you have Jack, the uptight anal-retentive ex-CIA agent; Dina, the overpowered Hausfrau; Bernie, the liberal Dad who gave up his legal practice to raise Greg; and Roz, sex therapist for seniors. That's too much in one place, and we haven't even factored in Greg and Pam yet -- or everybody's pets -- or Little Jack -- the Byrnes' baby grandson who Jack has coached to communicate in sign language.

Naturally, the whole weekend is a set-up for one disaster after another, including Little Jack's first words, which will be impossible to leave in when the film is edited for television. Who's the parent who gave consent for this kid to learn how to curse at such a young age?

De Niro once again gets to mock his ever-present tough-guy aura as the constantly suspicious spook. But as amazing as he is to watch, the people having the real fun are Hoffman and Striesand as a pair of new-wave Jews -- especially Hoffman. He skates through each scene with the comic effervescence I remember from Tootsie two decades ago. Striesand is also intensely likable as Mother Focker (heh heh heh, I couldn't resist) even if you hate her off-screen politics.

Greg Focker doesn't seem to have learned anything from the first picture. He's still lost as to how to assert himself, still a male nurse, and still without the brainpower to break off a relationship where family values means giving prospective husbands a lie-detector test. And one wonders why Dina stays with a guy who's so uncompromisingly uptight. But silly me, we wouldn't have a movie if everybody was normal, now?

"Screwball comedy" is a term generally reserved for wacky films of the 1930's with generous helpings of physical humor and contrived situations. People loved them because they were a release from a rotten, Great Depression-era world. Meet The Fockers fits that description nicely, even down to its time of release -- in a divided America still smarting from the November election, disallusioned with the war in Iraq and aghast at Tsnumai damage halfway around the world. Everybody needs to escape sometime.

Monday, January 3, 2005

Reel To Reel:
The Phantom Of The Opera

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Gerald Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Swordplay, Brief (Male) Nudity

Preconceived Notions: No Michael Crawford, no Sara Brightman -- without them, it's gonna be tough to measure up to the stage version.
The Bottom Line: Excellent singing, but much of the stage magic gets lost in the translation to the screen.

Like its title charcter, Phantom Of The Opera has been in Hollywood's development dungeon for more than a decade. Hang-ups came with reuniting the original star cast of Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman with producer Andrew Lloyd Webber -- mainly because Brightman is Lloyd's ex-wife. So finally, Gerald Butler steps into the Phantom role and Emmy Rossum as Christine in Gaston Leroux's tale of love, music, terror and betrayal in the Paris Opera and the underground world below.

I remember seeing Phantom on the London stage in 1991, and even without Crawford and Brightman, the production was an extrodinary experience, pushing the limits of what could be accomplished on stage -- of candelabras rising from the stage floor, through the fog as the Phantom takes Christine -- his "angel of music" to his underground hideout. That scene is duplicated in the movie as a nod to those who've seen the stage production. Seeing the film brought back a lot of those memories, but the magic seemed missing. Perhaps it's because I've grown so accustomed to the use of CGI in pictures. Or maybe it's because of the staging -- you actually believed, if only for a few moments, you were in the Paris Opera and the phantom's world was below you.

The film follows the original musical for the most part, with some rearrangements to build the drama without the benefit of an intermission. Some flash-forwards are added along with a swordfight that really isn't needed. We also get some additional exposition into who the Phantom is. Unlike the stage production, many scenes are spoken rather than sung, so many spoken scenes seem out of joint. Why not just make everything sung and keep Phantom more of a, well, opera?

As for the singing, Rossum is tremendous as Christine. Forget Sarah Brightman. Where was she a decade ago? Butler is a capable Phantom and plays it to his best, but he just doesn't have the vocal power of Michael Crawford. Unfair comparison, I know, but if you listen to both of them performing the same material, you'll get what I mean. Patrick Wilson is just fine as Christine's lover Raoul. Ditto for Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds, who play the house's put-upon new owners. And Minnie Driver is surprisingly funny as the Paris Opera's card-carrying pain-in-the-alto Prima Donna Diva.

Phantom runs two hours and twenty minutes, but realisticly, I believe at least 10 minutes could have been cut, including the flash-forwards and the aformentioned swordfight. This has to be one of those cases where Webber and company decided they needed to placate both fans of the stage version by giving them something more and people who don't usually see movie musicals. Yes, this film finally got made, and it turned out better than it could've been, but not as good as it should've been.