Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

The Cusack influence runs deep through Hot Tub Time Machine, a movie that doesn’t even dare you to take it seriously but tries to be “about” something at the same time. John Cusack has discussed his joining the project already in motion and rushed through the green light by MGM, hustling through an uncredited rewrite with director Steve Pink. There are three other names on the script; I imagine they wrote the blow job jokes and the gay panic while Cusack and Pink inflected the pathos and the redemption arcs.

There are two assholes and two wimps; all four are losers and the only thing that connects them is the hazy “past.” Lou (Rob Corddry) brings his old group back together when he drunkenly passes out in his running car and gets put up in a suicide ward. To cheer him up, old friends Nick (Craig Robinson) and Adam (Cusack) bring him out to the old ski resort where they used to hang in the 80s; Adam’s nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) is along for the ride. Nick abandoned his music career for a loveless marriage, Adam’s girlfriend just left him (taking his television, that bitch!) and Jacob lives in Adam’s basement with zero friends and an addiction to Second Life (wink). Their miseries recall Back to the Future (in set up if not in execution) so it’s a good thing that when they hit Kodiak Valley they’ll be given opportunities to right what went wrong in their lives thanks to the magical hot tub.

That this is so obviously the course of the story makes it incredibly frustrating when the film actually tries to explain its way down the straight and narrow. Especially for a film that’s getting made because of its title and will succeed in its target demo through an abundance of ugly men (because it’s funny when they show their asses) and sexy women (because it’s hot when they show their tits), I can’t believe how much exposition there is in this damn thing.

This is a self-aware movie (read: a movie that sports the production values of a YouTube video about a guy sinking awesome trick shots) that features characters who are aware of and reference time travel as we know it from the popular culture. Given all this, it’s somewhat ridiculous that I have to spend a whole hour watching them try to not change anything because they’re afraid of The Butterfly Effect. The story, of course, isn’t what counts here. What counts is that because of that butterfly effect there will be an increased number of blow jobs and fist fights. And I must admit that for the most part, the movie had me laughing. Nobody deadpans like Robinson and Corddry’s macho posturing, even when his pants are off, is hilariously over-the-top. Begrudgingly, I admit that the consequences of their butterfly effect are pretty cleverly executed.

But it’s really too bad, because even for a movie called Hot Tub Time Machine, a reliance on scatological humor is just that. In sending John Cusack back to the 80s to fix his love life (and casting pop-icon-in-the-making Lizzy Caplan opposite him) the film becomes a sorely missed opportunity. By the time the four heroes finally get to the pinch, begin apologizing amongst themselves and acting towards their goals, the movie tries to wrap up a feature’s worth of romantic subplots in the space of about twenty minutes. It doesn’t have time for any of that, but it does have time for Craig Robinson to sing more of The Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get It Started” than I ever needed to hear again.

Yes, that’s the song he chooses to Marty McFly into the hearts of a dance floor that’s never heard trash-hop. 25 years worth of second-chances and you’re banking your fortune on The Black Eyed Peas? I guess I’m not really in this film’s demographic, am I?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Toy Story 3

There's a flashback midway through Toy Story 2 in which Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl recalls life with her former owner, Emily, who abandoned her under the bed only to rediscover her just in time to send her away in a goodwill donation box. It's heartbreaking, and the new sequel, Toy Story 3, functions as a feature-length, ensemble retelling of this vignette. 11 years after the previous film came out and 15 after the first, Pixar has kept the franchise timeline in sync with our own: our heroic toys are stuck in a box and their owner, Andy, is going away for college. They haven't been played with for years.

The toys end up donated to Sunnyside Daycare, a development that only Woody believes to be a mistake. Everyone else thinks their time has come and looks to the unknown (read: scary) future of drooling toddlers and teethers. Woody must convince his toy compatriots to bust out with him, but if they do, even their existence back home with(out) Andy remains a question mark.

The options presented to the toys are The Attic, The Trash or The Daycare — where they risk getting abused and torn apart. It's heaven, hell or purgatory, and the heavenly option — wherein they earn a special spot on high reserved for special toys — also comes with dust, neglect and sorrow. Andy is never going to be a kid again.

There are religious connotations to the story, though more accurately it’s a spiritual, existential question that drives the toys' plight. The motley band of brothers defines their existence through the love of a human child (their very personalities have grown from the roles foisted upon them by Andy's imagination during playtime), so what happens to their identities when Andy doesn't love them the way he used to? (The film will play with that question in several different ways, from a reorganization of Mr. Potato Head's face to Buzz Lightyear's getting reset en español.)

What's more, the film never questions the main toys' raison d'etre. Several supporting characters do — the leader of the “inmates” at the daycare facility, an aged, strawberry-smelling teddy named Lotso (as in "Lots-o-Huggin' Bear"), remarks during the initial daycare tour that "no owners means no heartbreak." In some ways this retreads the themes covered in Toy Story 2, wherein Woody makes the choice to stay with Andy even though their time together is finite. The villain in that film, Stinky Pete, has the foresight to ask Woody if he thinks Andy is going to bring him along to college.

Toy Story 3 presents Andy's move as the catalyst to the lesson that even though our time here is limited, there are rules that govern our existence and rites of passage that make us stronger for living through them. If we define ourselves by the people we love, we risk losing our very selves when those relationships end. But Toy Story 3 says that's still the only way to live a fulfilled life. It's never preachy, and the spiritual journey the toys undergo is a perfectly-executed crisis of faith and renewal of the self.

And it gets dark. Like, really dark. From the prison-break escape from daycare right on through to the final frame, Toy Story 3 becomes harder and harder to watch. It contains one of the most terrifying sequences I've seen in ages (nice to be reminded, after the doldrums of ostensible "horror" like the schlock Human Centipede or the earnest failure Shutter Island that I'm not actually desensitized to onscreen terror) and I have to question whether the MPAA even watched the thing before they slapped it with a G rating. Even Up got a PG, presumably for the hint of blood.

Two Pixar first-timers helm the film: Lee Unkrich, co-director on Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, makes his debut as lead director while the script comes courtesy of Michael Arndt, who signed up after winning his Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine. That film's mixture of slapstick and brooding shows up again in Toy Story 3 (which is, by the way, hilarious in equal measure to everything else I've discussed), but in the Pixar collective Arndt has found a team of collaborators to help balance out his wilder demons. While the collection of misfits that made up the family at the center of Little Miss Sunshine came across as a bit contrived, the quirks and idiosyncrasies that seem to be Arndt's stock-in-trade work a lot better when applied to a dinosaur, a potato and an astronaut.

Arndt and Unkrich, together with the rest of their team at Pixar, pull out all the stops. In a multiplex flooded with computer animation imitators repackaging and remarketing the lowest common denominator (as it sinks ever lower), Pixar Animation continues upping the stakes, putting its heroes in real danger and making movies not just for children or movies for children of all ages, but movies for people who think and feel. Toy Story 3 is neither as tight as Up nor as ambitious as WALL•E, but it adheres to the emotional core and relentlessly evades painless solutions or easy answers, making it both an immediate classic and a devastating punch in the gut. I don't know the last time I was affected by a movie like this.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Book of Eli

The movie to which The Book of Eli owes its greatest debt turns out not to be Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road or any of the Mad Max films, but rather WALL•E, which is finally and inevitably establishing itself as a benchmark against which all future post-apocalyptic yarns will be measured. Denzel Washington’s Eli is a simpleton, moved to action (programmed, even) by a force he doesn’t really understand to shepherd a MacGuffin from one place to another and save the human race. He even has an old iPod, which he keeps charged with a battery the size of a sandwich. Problem is – and I know Washington can be quite a dish to those so inclined – Eli’s nowhere near as cute as WALL•E was, and not half as fun to watch.

“It’s not a book, it’s a weapon!” shrieks Gary Oldman at his number one, watering at the mouth over the power a slumlord might gain were he to end up proprietor of the sole remaining copy of the Bible. This nifty premise – Eli’s Bible becomes the grail in a post-holy crusade – is the foundation upon which the whole rickety fiasco stands, but directing team Albert and Allen Hughes don’t even begin to tackle the ramifications of it.

Oldman has a few weapons of his own, including rocket launchers, a ridiculous chain gun that hangs out of a truck, and the only remotely interesting one: Mila Kunis’ virginity. In a wasteland where all the characters are mucking about trying to avoid cannibals, Kunis’ Solara somehow still looks like she just stepped out of an American Apparel ad. Everyone else is covered in dust and wearing the boots of dead men, but Solara possesses an un-creasable pair of perfect skin-tight jeans and matching flannel – perfect to keep you warm at night and plus they make your ass look hot at the Grizzly Bear show.

So naturally Solara gets tossed around like so much bartered wood. Oldman owns her because his mistress Jennifer Beals is her vulnerable mom, his henchmen all want to win her body from their boss, the desert scavengers want to rape her and Eli, after declining to trade his booty for hers, decides he’s supposed to protect her. He’s a missionary who normally refuses to intervene when he comes across a biker gang tearing the platties off a poogly devotchka because to step in and save her would be to step off his path to carry out God’s will. But Eli must do as he is told by the Voices in his head and they remind him that hot sidekicks are good for business. It’s the Christian thing to do, after all.

The unsettling thing is that Eli’s quest is ultimately underlined as righteous. The villain’s understanding of the Good Book is, though “evil”, sensible and practical: he wants to jumpstart religiosity amongst the few people left on Earth so that he can control them and become (more) rich and powerful. Eli, on the other hand, hears God (or something) and carries the book where he is told, carefully soaking in its messages along the way. The notion that Eli might be full of it is actually what keeps the movie going as long as it does; when he is finally revealed to have a literally divine power working for him, it’s a little sickening.

It’s the kind of lazy conservatism that would be worth attacking if it weren’t handled so sloppily. This isn’t intended to be a message movie because nobody thought through the implications of the ridiculous twist ending. I could say that I like the notions fostered that the printed word will prove to be pretty important, even to the guy who also has the last iPod, but I don’t know if that’s the message either. It’s really all little more than an excuse to blow shit up.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

From Paris With Love

“Talking isn’t gonna get the job done,” a stern John Travolta reminds his gun-shy protégé as he prepares to confront a suicide bomber and stop the terrorists. This neatly encapsulates the politics of From Paris With Love, a big swinging dick of a movie about how diplomacy is for pansies. Shoot first and you don’t even need to bother with the questions. Jack Bauer, never one to hesitate, would surely send this movie from Sprint™ phone to Facebook™ profile before closing his Netflix™ instant streaming queue.

Director Pierre Morel’s previous American-badass-busting-up-Paris actioner Taken also incurred the wrath of astute movie-watchers who don’t like having conservative politics rammed down their throats like a hand towel in the name of the greater good. That film followed Liam Neeson on a torture spree to save his daughter from human traffickers, another plot that draws an easy comparison to the Fox network’s 24.

Where the seventh season of 24 made a laughable effort to respond to its liberal critics by putting its hero before a Senate committee interrogating him about his tendency to torture, From Paris With Love is a similar thematic extrapolation of its predecessor, giving voice to a young agent who believes in diplomacy (he works at the American Embassy in Paris) before blowing a Pakistani’s brains all over his face and showing him the way of the gun.

That hero is Reese, played by Jonathan Rhys-Myers without a hint of irony from the film in regards to his playing a dull American homophone (that irony is reserved for Travolta, who gets an unforgivable “Royale with Cheese” joke). He manages the accent but can only do so much with lines like “Let’s skip dinner and go straight to dessert.” Thankfully, Reese is pulled away very quickly from his diplomatic paper-shuffling (boring!) and his half-naked girlfriend (saucy!) to chase Travolta’s Charlie Wax all over Paris.

Wax has been partnered with Reese, for whom this world-saving mission is actually a training op. Don’t let that confuse you: it is both a world-saving mission and a training op, which is only one of several frightening elements of the plot. They follow coke-dealers to pimps to French thugs who have been sitting around watching La Haine to the terrorists who are mostly Pakistani and all of them brown except for – not a spoiler if you’ve seen this kind of thing before – Reese’s girlfriend, who was in with the bad guys all along.

We can give Morel a gold star for knowing how to keep this kind of thing moving. He does all he can to prevent you from thinking – it’s one of those gunfight-after-fistfight-after-car-chase deals. Taken even as a straight-forward action movie however, two things are lacking. For one, the action itself is dull and includes the most ineptly shot car chase since – well, since Taken. The main issue through the first two acts, however, is a complete lack of stakes. Where Taken got a leg up on the daddy-daughter pathos (that movie works for me, honestly, because of the birthday party prologue), Paris explicitly glazes over the why’s and the why-we-should-care’s. In order to establish a cover at a brothel, Wax forces a fistful of coke up Reese’s nose and in his ensuing mental haze explains the terrorist plot. Neither we nor Reese are able to understand his blurred speech, which culminates with Reese anxiously muttering “Terrorists!” ...I guess “Terrorists!” is all we need to know in America these days, huh?

It’s that “plot twist” through which the film’s politics come blazing to the forefront, because of course Reese would like to find a diplomatic solution to the whole girlfriend/suicide-bomber thing rather than see her shot in the head. I really try to give this the benefit of the doubt, and I’m marginally impressed with a movie that has the cojones to pick a side, any side, and follow through. But the conclusion to this momentarily interesting conflict is, rest assured, dramatically absurd on top of being politically abhorrent. If you were disgusted by Taken, bring a vomit bag.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dude, Counter-Dude: Million Dollar Baby (2004)

This point-counterpoint on Million Dollar Baby is the first entry in a proposed series of opinion-exchanges between myself and A.A. Dowd of Wild Lines. Expect ad hominem attacks, Simpsons references and rampant polysyllabism; inevitably, I will resort to footnotes. This debut took a good two months for us to finish, so there's no telling when the next entry is gonna come along. For now, I won the coin toss and elected to receive.

A.A. Dowd, taking the position in defense of Million Dollar Baby:

Million Dollar Baby is the type of movie Clint Eastwood was born to make. Take that as praise or as ammunition for the case against, but don’t take it lightly. Eastwood, who never met a dead genre he wouldn’t or couldn’t revive, does not sample from the collective cinematic past. He just seems to occupy it. He does not filter his archaic preoccupations through winking irony or fussy fanboy affectation, á la Brian DePalma or Quentin Tarantino. He pays his respects not by meticulously mimicking his heroes, but by making the kind of movies they did. He does not riff. He is no postmodernist. He is a prolific, sturdy craftsman, the sort that would have thrived back when the studio system was still firing on all cylinders. His aw-shucks sincerity and no-nonsense conviction—old-fashioned virtues oft mistaken for flaws—align him with the great working-class poets of Hollywood, the Sam Fullers and Howard Hawkses.

A bona fide 40s or 50s style boxing melodrama, Million Dollar Baby would feel right at home among the rough-and-tumble ring pictures of Mark Robson (Champion and The Harder They Fall) or Robert Wise (Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Set-Up). It walks and talks, it moves, like a lost genre classic. Most of the elements are there, unfiltered and irony-free. The young and hungry fighter, all guts and heart and foolhardy conviction, claws his (her) way up the ranks. An old trainer spars vicariously with his own deferred dreams. The fights get longer, tougher, bloodier. The ringsides get noisier, smokier. Greedy managers and seedy promoters scramble for a piece of the action. The fighters collapse into their respective corners, battered and bruised but begging to get back in there. There is a big fight, and a nasty, cheap-shot cartoon contender.

Cliché? Inherently so, but there is poetry in these stock movements and players. Corny? Only in the way of all great melodrama. Eastwood assembles these spare parts, the gears and pistons of a faded B-movie machine, and invests them with a breadth of emotion uncommon to most contemporary models. Clint’s ethos stretch way back, to the first wave of studio boxing pictures. If Abraham Polonsky’s 1947 Body and Soul jettisoned the nobility of the genre by steeping it in the greed and exploitation of the fight circuit, Clint relocates it in a familiar (but achingly heartfelt) fighter-trainer, father-daughter relationship. The film colors this central conflict in an earnestness that went out of vogue not long after Eastwood started his acting career; to snicker at Frankie and Maggie’s blossoming kinship—the way she wears his defenses down, working her way into his affections, respect conflating with platonic love—is to approach it through a distinctly modern lens. Million Dollar Baby rewards a willful suspension—not just of disbelief, but of the sleek and well-taught cynicism of the post-modern movie.

Todd Detmold, taking the position against the film:

The last of several bear traps laid out for me in the opening paragraphs above is the suggestion that Million Dollar Baby operates on a level so pure and old-fashioned that only a stone-hearted cynic would manage to go unmoved by the thing. And I will happily admit that there are moments – isolated moments – that I didn’t anticipate finding in this film, colored as it was by that first screening, back in the theater in 2004. I snickered through it then, but of course I was at the height of my collegiate superiority, so obviously I would be too cynical to enjoy this. These moments are the ones of quiet: when late at night in a dim and run down gymnasium that effectively houses the souls of our characters, those very same characters shut up and the film becomes transiently beautiful.

I can’t pretend to have seen the majority of Eastwood’s films, but I can stitch together a passing notion of how he operates. He’s well-known for his ‘one take’ ethos. He doesn’t direct a movie so much as put the actors here and the camera there and then move on to the next scene – its only through an instinct weaned upon five decades in the craft that he manages to make those long gauzy nights as poignant as they are. It’s inadvertent pathos by way of antipathy. In my estimation, an Eastwood film is only going to be so good as its script. One can easily credit Unforgiven to David Peoples.

And I credit Million Dollar Baby to the inimitable Paul Haggis. There’s an atmosphere to the film, sure, but Haggis’ story is one of cringe-inducing types and blunt didactic moralizing; a film hoisted on the shoulders of a central actress infusing her stereotype with some humanity only through juxtaposition to the even-worse stereotypes populating the film around her. In a city of ciphers, at least mo cuishle comes with a gender swap.

It’s bad enough the thing stops being the happy-sappy boxing melodrama described above and morphs suddenly into a Lifetime original movie (Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep: The Maggie Fitzgerald Story); it has to include in its box of hammers-as-art an unsympathetic family of fat rednecks, a pair of unsympathetically mean ethnic boxers, a comic-relief twig who’s so unsympathetically stupid to think he can be a boxer… and to top it all off, a badly overcooked paternal surrogacy.

Watching the movie, you think to yourself, “I get it, I get it. Stop, I get it already.” Maggie’s paralysis is plenty pitiful without the bedsores, the clogged arteries and gross bruising, the amputation and the self-glossectomy. She turns into Sideshow Bob walking into six, seven, eight, nine rakes. From the repetition of misery comes levity. What a joke.

A.A. Dowd's rebuttal:

Where exactly in the oeuvre of David “Leviathan” Peoples—author of space age and post-apocalyptic fantasies, mostly—does one detect the quiet grace and desperado gravity of Unforgiven? You’re telling me you attribute that new classic more to a sci-fi scribe-for-hire than to, say, a filmmaker who has dabbled in all shades and shapes of the American oater? A digressive question, perhaps, but one that hints at the fallacy of merely thinking of Eastwood as some sort of anonymous journeyman whose efforts assure nothing more or less than a 1:1 success rate of execution. Hell, I’ve played that card before, too, usually when deriding one of the man’s actual follies, á la fatally stupid junk like Gran Torino. Truth is, Old Squints has fucked up good material before—see Changeling, a wicked-interesting true story that required the razor wit of a Curtis Hanson, not Clint’s usual Old Hollywood fairy dust. But he’s also done tough, lean, classically cathartic wonders with some pretty blasé blueprints.

Case in point: the screenplay for Million Dollar Baby, which is nearly (if not quite) as hoary as you’ve made it out to be. Most of those garish caricatures you checked off come courtesy of hacky Haggis, who plucked them wholesale from F.X. Toole’s ringside and warped them into his usual rouge’s gallery of unreal mouthpieces. They stick out like anachronistic sore thumbs against the director’s dignified digs: the awful scenes with Maggie’s redneck family stink of a finger-wagging class condescension, and Morgan Freeman’s running voice-over makes constantly—and, at times, somewhat oppressively—explicit what might have been better left as subtext. (I think of Jack Lipnick in Barton Fink, chastising the titular scribe for his pretensions, screaming “There's plenty of poetry inside that ring, Fink.”)

Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Jay “Danger” Baruchel, and the trailer trash cavalry may have wandered in from one of Haggis’s loony race screeds, but Frankie, Maggie and Eddie sure didn’t. To appreciate Eastwood’s achievement is to distinguish the stereotypes from the affectionate archetypes, the writer’s contributions from the director’s, the fatty appendages from the meat at the center—in other words, to understand how Eastwood has transcended the limitations of his material and made the film his own. The pathos are anything but inadvertent. They're intrinsically linked to what we know about this genre and, especially, this filmmaker.

Certainly, he’s done more this time than put actors here and a camera there. This is one of Eastwood’s most visually dynamic movies. His characters dance in and out of shadows, his camera roving seductively through authentically run-down interiors. And his fight scenes have the sweat, swing and swagger of the genre’s best. With Million Dollar Baby, Clint buries his reputation for meat-and-potato inexpressiveness. More than that, though, he uses the supposed Lifetime movie of a third act to tear down the walls of genre tradition and reveal something deeper, stronger, and more profound behind them. (Like Raging Bull or Fat City, it’s a boxing movie that eventually becomes something much, much more.) Yes, Maggie goes through a hell of an ordeal. These slings and arrows and agonies are to establish a hopeless, no-way-out scenario for her…and to force Frankie to make the kind of sacrifice Eastwood’s iconic tough guys never had to. It’s a genuinely profound subversion of Clint’s masculine killer’s code, “murder” as both an act of devastating self-destruction and selfless love—the empathetic opposite of vigilante justice. Take it from someone who has seen the majority of the guy’s films: Clint’s never been this vulnerable, before or since. Levity my ass.

Todd Detmold's rebuttal:
Q: Where in the oeuvre of David Peoples do I detect the quiet grace and desperado gravity of Unforgiven?

A: Unforgiven1.
Given our Kael v. Sarris discussions leading up to this point-counterpoint, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that you’re falling into exactly the same trap where Pauline found Andrew. You can lord it above me all you like that you’ve seen more Eastwood movies than me; if I’m required to plod through the entire Dirty Harry series just to figure out what makes Million Dollar Baby worthy of my time, we’ve got a problem.

This is one of the dangers of auteur theory. As soon as a director makes a couple good movies or establishes a persona (and this is even easier for a man who was an actor first), we can judge everything else by those unrelated premises. We end up taking the film not on what it is but on what it is not. Shooting the movie beautifully2 doesn’t make it not a poorly-disguised lecture on the pros and cons of euthanasia, nor does Eastwood being vulnerable.

If we must play this game, let’s bring it back to Unforgiven once more (which is, by the way, a pretty damn well-written film). You want to see Eastwood playing a variation on a theme? A sensitive tough guy? You really can’t do much better than this. If Million Dollar Baby is a career benchmark because of its subversion of the Eastwood archetype, what, I ask, does that make Unforgiven? Eastwood has been an old man for a while now, and he had been playing with the same themes in Unforgiven twelve years prior when he rehashed them in Million Dollar Baby. It’s been a good twenty years since Eastwood lost the ability to make a movie where he isn’t an old man. Every role he plays will inadvertently be a commentary on his former self.

Even if we are impressed with Clint’s vulnerability as he opens up to his surrogate daughter, that arc is more than complete by the time she hits the stool. To suggest that the third act somehow transcends the script is dismissive of the deliberate narrative structure. Haggis goes so far out of his way to clumsily weave in Frank’s absent daughter and Maggie’s absent father – as well as, let’s not forget, the anecdote about putting the dog to sleep – there’s no way not to read the film as a harsh and cloying morality tale.

You admit the script is hoary, you admit that the ensemble is composed of stereotypes3. In your opening you say Eastwood doesn’t riff; rather he occupies a classical stage. Yet in your rebuttal you claim he’s futzing with archetypes and ‘tearing down the walls of the genre’. You say he’s a sturdy craftsman who would’ve owned the classical studio system, but then he’s transcending the limitations of his material and making it his own. Which is it, man? If Eastwood really wanted to subvert Haggis’ script and lift it from the muck, he would've had Frank unplug Maggie in the ambulance back from Vegas and saved us all the trouble.

1. You can call him David “Leviathan” Peoples or you can call him David “Twelve Monkeys” Peoples or David “Blade Runner” Peoples. Put your snark aside: surely the man deserves some credit for Unforgiven, no? [back]

2. And there’s something else Eastwood doesn’t deserve all the credit for. [back]

3. Except for the leads: they’re archetypes, allegedly, not stereotypes, and only because of the overly-explicit dignity of age and the twist of gender. If Eastwood is so good at infusing Haggis’ terrible writing with a lot of sincere humanity, why couldn’t he do anything with the other ten major characters? [back]

A.A. Dowd's closing statement:

Before we start willy-nilly evoking the spirit of dearly departed Pauline, let’s get something straight: Kael may have railed and raged against the act of appraising a work chiefly by gleaning the name on the signature line, but she would never, ever deny the importance that a little cinematic context plays in grasping her medium of choice. Nobody who loved Brian DePalma as much as she did possibly could. Kael recognized, as all critics should, that movies play on shared histories, many of them the kind that flicker in the dark and burn their way onto our synapses. Context is what separates Jonathon Rosenbaum from Peter Travers; that tabula rasa school of film criticism is the last refuge of those who don't know their backlots from their badlands.

No, you don’t have to have seen the lion’s share of Eastwood’s work to form an opinion on Million Dollar Baby. But is it so out-there to suggest that a familiarity with his oeuvre could actually benefit one’s understanding of the film? Certainly it might help one see the difference between what Clint The Actor is doing in Baby and what he's doing in Unforgiven. The latter is about violence as inescapable burden––you live by the sword, you die by the sword, and once stoked, that bloodlust hardwires itself into your moral makeup. The former is about the price that comes with strict adherence to rigid masculine codes. Unforgiven takes the Eastwood ethos to their logical endpoint: terrible triumph, but triumph nonetheless. Million Dollar Baby cracks them wide open, re-examines them, and ends up wondering aloud what the hell they're worth. It's summary vs. subversion, lionization vs. critique––how flatly reductive to dismiss them both as mere "sensitive tough guy" routines. (And by the way: how can you know what exactly Clint's doing a "commentary" on, or how well he's doing it, if you haven't seen these iconic back-works? Cultural osmosis? Or are you basing your conclusions on a familiarity with the McGarnagle character from The Simpsons?)

Certainly it takes some kind of willful distortion of screen content to see in the film's backstretch any kind of rhetorical debate on the morality of euthanasia. Beyond one brief conversation with the priest, when does Eastwood toss out talking points? It’s never about whether or not it’s wrong for Frankie to pull that plug. It’s about can he do it. It's about will he. To call the film's dramatic arc complete at the 90 minute mark is to suggest that our man gains absolution the minute he fully accepts his role as surrogate father figure. The real spiritual test, of course, comes later––will Frankie strip his own soul bare to set Maggie's free? Call it cheap or maudlin if you must, but I'm at a loss as to how this protracted internal struggle could be read as superfluous. Did you just shut down when the breathing tube showed up? Did your critical faculties go numb the minute Maggie's body did?

You see contradiction in my various defenses of the film. What I'm trying to convey––perhaps clumsily, but with enthusiasm––is the way great genre cinema can both adhere to template and locate a profound emotional truth at its center. Eastwood earns comparison to his Golden Age heroes by refusing to condescend his material, while simultaneously finding ways to gently bend it into something personal, something reflective of his own concerns. (Fuck it, maybe I am an autuerist.) At the very least, Million Dollar Baby offers one hell of a transgressive first: Hollywood's last standing cowboy, the faded face of masculinity incarnate, weeping openly (and convincingly!) into the camera. Not even David "Unforgiven" Peoples could write that out of the old man.

Todd Detmold's closing statement:

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that this has devolved into a battle of Million Dollar Baby vs. Unforgiven. I'd say both films are both about masculine codes and violence as burden.

Deep down though, it's starting to feel like writer vs. director. We write off David Peoples based on Leviathan, but we forgive Eastwood misstep after misstep. Why? I'd propose it's solely because we're so familiar with him. Eastwood is a living, breathing (barely, it sometimes seems) icon: this is how I'm able to laugh at McGarnagle without watching all fifty-something of the man's films4.

He's also a hyphenate, and I think it's risky to elide Eastwood the actor and Eastwood the director. Isn't Gran Torino also about cycles of violence? Isn't Space Cowboys also about aging masculinity? In fact, one of Eastwood's great shortcomings as an actor is that he's always Clint Eastwood. There's nothing he could ever do about it, but at the same time it makes for a cheap subversion of "the Eastwood archetype" if you've got Clint Eastwood.

To me, the sins of Paul Haggis drag Million Dollar Baby down from any heights Eastwood could ever hope to hoist it to, whereas my opposition seems to feel no amount of terrible writing and clumsy moralizing could bog down Eastwood's careful genre exercise.

But here's my last word: the dramatic arc of Million Dollar Baby is complete when Frank gives Maggie her mo cuishle cloak. He keeps the meaning from her (and the audience)5 so to jerk some tears in the final minutes, but what of anybody watching who speaks Irish? Whether we can recognize it or not at the time (and, like McGarnagle, you don't even need to know what it means to know what it means), this is the moment where Frank has accepted her as his daughter.

Everything after this is first a victory lap for their success (as boxer/manager and as father/daughter) followed by the overextended paralysis sequence. The connection between Maggie and Frank's real daughter remains hazily drawn and Frank ends up served with the same amount of nothing he began with. Frank's story is about accepting his fatherhood, and for the entire final act of the film he gets beaten down for it through contrived circumstance. I get beaten down, too, and I resent this when it's not earned. Anybody can tear a tongue out, but Paul Haggis can't make it mean something, even with Clint on both sides of the camera.

4. There's a middle ground, by the way, between having seen all and having seen none. Also, The Simpsons isn't Family Guy: you don't need to get the reference to get the joke. [back]

5. "My blood", in case anybody's gotten this far without knowing the film too closely. [back]