*Million Dollar Baby (2004)*

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Starring: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter (his first film), Brian F. O’Byrne, Lucia Rijker, Beloved Character Actress Margo Martindale, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena

Director: Clint Eastwood

Summary: A determined woman works with a hardened boxing trainer to become a professional

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Eastwood), Actress (Swank)*, Supporting Actor (Freeman)*, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing

A simple, stripped down and endearing movie with a…surprising…third act if you weren’t spoiled about it coming in (which I was). With her Oscar-winning performance her, Hilary Swank joined Luise Rainer and Glenda Jackson as the most forgotten members on the “Actresses with Multiple Best Actress Oscars” list for the same reasons as the other two: they all started off with a bang winning two awards in quick succession and then did almost nothing of note afterwards. Regardless, she is excellent in the role: besides the obvious physical dedication required for it, she also possess the pure goodness and earnestness needed for it in spades. Eastwood plays a crusty, grumbling old man, aka basically every role he’s had since 1990, but he always does it well and in the third act displays a lot of genuine pathos. I would be surprised though that Freeman won an Oscar for his solid but not especially noteworthy performance, except that every man, woman and child loves Morgan Freeman and he should have an Oscar to his name, so fine.

The story here is simple but effective, about taking risks and trusting others, moving on from sins of the past, and broadly about the classic American dream of reaching the top through nothing else besides heart and hard work; however, what ultimately makes the film memorable is its basic story about a female boxer wanting to make something of herself and having a sort of father-daughter relationship with an old trainer who is estranged from his own daughter and sees an opportunity to do it right this time, and how well these two characters are written and acted. The film never loses focus on what really matters and the result, along with a talented director, is a mostly great screenplay and overall film. The only thing about the screenplay that I thought could have been better was its total reliance on (multiple) pure evil one-dimensional villain characters, which stuck out as overbearing in a film like this; also, how is the women’s champion not banned from the sport after literally every fight of hers? That one just kind of annoyed me as the film abandoned all real-world logic for the sake of narrative there.

I would be remiss to not mention the “twist”, or that the third act is basically an avalanche of sadness. I didn’t have a problem with Eastwood’s character’s decision because I don’t necessarily think the filmmakers endorsed his actions (his is a deeply flawed and troubled character after all), but it does feel like the film stacked the deck a little too hard and reveled in misery just a bit too much to get the audience there leading up to it. With all that said, this is still a really poignant film that is well worth watching for the dynamic between the main two characters and their respective performances.

Rating: B+

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Ray (2004)

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Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell, Sharon Warren, C.J. Sanders, Wendell Pierce, Terrence Howard

Director: Taylor Hackford

Summary: The story of musician Ray Charles, from his humble beginnings in the South to stardom in the 1950’s and 60’s

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Foxx)*, Sound Mixing*, Costume Design, Film Editing

A solid biopic, although not without flaws. I liked how the film did not sugarcoat just how deeply flawed Charles was (constantly cheating on his wife, being a heroin addict, turning his back on some of his friends for reasons of business), while celebrating how remarkable his achievements were as a blind man from a poor family in the South. The film is most noted for Foxx’s Oscar-winning performance, and you can see why: he was totally committed to the role, his performance radiates both the charm that made so many people gravitate towards him and the underlying darkness within him, haunted by his past; here though is where I have one complaint-the film posits that he was forever haunted by the death of his brother that he felt responsible for when they were children. While his brother did die, the way it happened is significantly different than as depicted in the film and apparently this wasn’t something that he couldn’t mentally escape from in real life (the death of his mother is a different story though). This, along with how they wholly fabricate Charles refusing to play at any segregated venue and him being banned from playing in Georgia, are major aspects of the film that are from the whole cloth and are a black mark against anything strictly trying to be a biopic like this is, especially when there’s more than enough interest and drama without making things like that up. Still, even though the film is a little long at over 2 ½ hours, Foxx’s performance is good, Charles’ music is good to listen to, and it paints a nuanced and mostly engaging portrait of a legendary artist.

Rating: B-

Sideways (2004)

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Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh

Director: Alexander Payne

Summary: Two men reaching middle age with not much to show for it embark on a week-long road trip through California’s wine country just as one is about to take a trip down the aisle

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Haden Church), Supporting Actress (Madsen), Adapted Screenplay*

Basically, this is the kind of movie that fits my sensibilities to a T. I’d heard of it and remembered it had good reviews when it first came out, but I’d never had an urge to watch it and can’t imagine I ever would have if not for this project. Where to begin? The leads are extremely well-written: relatable but often unlikeable and pathetic characters who play off each other perfectly, and the performances for the two are fantastic (how Giamatti wasn’t nominated here, I have no idea).  Beyond just the leads, the screenplay in general is a well-oiled machine, combining a bleak comedic streak with genuine pathos and great dialogue. Besides Giamatti, I would have also given two additional nominations to the film: the low-key jazz score which fits perfectly and the cinematography, which isn’t the kind of flashy, taking shots of beautiful scenery cinematography that usually gets nominated, but the shot composition is consistently excellent and it uses the camera’s focus well. Movies like this are why I’m happy I did this project.

Rating: A

2004 in Review

Other Notable Films from 2004

The Incredibles

The Passion of the Christ

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Shaun of the Dead

The Motorcycle Diaries

The Sea Inside

Mean Girls

Fahrenheit 9/11

The Notebook

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Saw

Team America: World Police

Kung Fu Hustle

Hotel Rwanda

Before Sunset

Howl’s Moving Castle

Downfall

2004 Nominees in Review

Sideways: A

Million Dollar Baby: B+ (Won Best Picture)

Ray: B-

The Aviator: C+

Finding Neverland: C

I liked Million Dollar Baby, and it’s one of the better nominees of the last 5 years or so from this project…but Sideways is just terrific. I’m glad it got at least some recognition from the Academy (winning Best Adapted Screenplay), but I would have easily given it Best Picture. The other three nominees (all based on true stories actually), are pretty pedestrian as a group, with The Aviator being the biggest disappointment to me, and another underwhelming film from Scorsese from this period from 2002-2013 where five of his six films got nominated (compared to his career from 1967-2001 where only three of his films got nominated). Still, any year with multiple really strong films is fairly good in my book.

For 2005: Ang Lee’s was called the “pride of Chinese people all over the world” after his Oscar win for this movie…which was banned from being shown in China; This was (oddly enough) the first of two films about Truman Capote researching and writing his novel “In Cold Blood” that were released to acclaim in back-to-back years; Oddly enough, this film had its first screening previous to the first screening of the previous Best Picture winner, Million Dollar Baby-both of which were written by Paul Haggis; George Clooney was paid $1 each to star, write and produce this movie so that it could maintain a low budget; and Guri Weinberg plays his real-life father, Moshe Weinberg, in the movie, who the first victim of the Munich Olympics massacre.

*The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)*

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Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Andy Serkis, Billy Boyd, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, John Noble, Bernard Hill, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Dominic Monaghan, Karl Urban, Cate Blanchett

Director: Peter Jackson

Summary: Gandalf and Aragorn lead the World of Men against Sauron’s army to draw his gaze from Frodo and Sam as they approach Mount Doom with the One Ring

Other Nominations: Director*, Adapted Screenplay*, Original Score*, Original Song (“Into the West”)*, Sound Mixing*, Art Direction*, Makeup*, Costume Design*, Film Editing*, Visual Effects*

* I watched the theatrical cut (201 minutes) as opposed to the extended cut (251 minutes) as it’s the cut Academy voters would have seen when voting*

I’m glad I watched these films, but honestly I have absolutely no interest in ever seeing them again. All of the strengths of the previous movies (score, production design, makeup and visual effects) are again on display here, but everything else really has gone downhill for me since Fellowship. I enjoyed Fellowship because it felt focused, it did a great job of establishing it’s setting and premise, and there was still the novelty of the production, designs, costumes, score, etc. I assumed they would develop the characters to make them more compelling by giving them depth over the course of the next two films, but other than Gollum and Frodo at the very end, that didn’t really happen. The problem is how many subplots and characters there are and that way too much time is devoted to the action scenes-the basic story is very straight forward without all that many twists and turns and characters rarely develop in a meaningful way or have all that much depth, so what required so much time? Economy of storytelling is always extremely important to me: the runtime of the trilogy is 556 minutes (9 hours, 16 minutes), and that’s the theatrical cuts; it’s 714 minutes (11 hours, 54 minutes) for the extended cuts. That’s absurd-I could do an entire re-watch of Neon Genesis Evangelion and End of Evangelion in about the same time (approx. 600 minutes if you skip the credits each time) and that’s 26 episodes and a movie. Compare this all to the 376 minutes (6 hours, 16 minutes) for the original Star wars trilogy. What works for a book (which you can pick up, stop and pick up again and read over days and weeks) doesn’t work as well for a movie (which you’re supposed to watch straight through in essentially one sitting), and they should have trimmed more than they did.

So what stood out to me as things I liked about this installment in particular? Well, Nobel as a mad king is a lot of fun and I enjoyed Gandalf having a lot more to do this time (compared with The Two Towers) and he has some of his personality back. Like in the last film, the scenes with Frodo, Sam and Gollum were the best part and we get a nice conclusion to all of their character arcs (even if the film stubbornly refuses to end). This was a makeup ceremony that rewarded the achievements of the series as a whole, and I completely understand that: it was groundbreaking in many ways, and helped (along with the Harry Potter movies) pave the way for all the “epic” franchises we’ve gotten since. Still, it never captured my interest to the degree I was expecting it to and overall feels like a disappointment considering I love a good action-adventure story and with the hype it has.

Rating: B-

Lost in Translation (2003)

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Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris

Director: Sofia Coppola

Summary: A faded movie star and a neglected young woman form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in Tokyo

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Murray), Original Screenplay*

I enjoyed it, although I don’t have the same level of praise a lot of people do for the movie. I can certainly relate to most of its themes (alienation and an inability to connect, what am I going to do with my life (who am I and what do I want), marriage) and it does a good (although I would not say exceptional) job of exploring those themes through its characters. Murray is a perfect fit for the lead and is able to exhibit a lot of pathos without resorting to scenery chewing, but Johansson stood out to me even more. She was only 18 at the time, and yet she’s believably playing 25 because of her voice and how she carries herself in general; Faris is 26, yet if you didn’t know better, you would think Johansson is the same age or maybe even older.

My problems with the movie are two-fold. The biggest one is that it’s too laid back for my taste and even for what is almost purely a thematic and character piece, lacks any sort of real plot. The second is one that I’m not completely sure how I feel about to be honest. The film provides a very superficial look at Japan (heck, I’m shocked they never teased them going to a love hotel), and the main characters only engage with the country, its people and culture in the shallowest and broadest of ways with no interest in learning anything beyond that: the country feels alien and strange to them because they choose to keep that distance and only think about how things are different. However, it’s hard to say if this is a bug (making the cheapest and laziest types of jokes in this type of movie-”oh those wacky foreigners!”), or a feature: the filmmakers did this intentional because Murray and Johansson have a hard time engaging with the country on any real level of depth in the same way they seem to be having a hard to time engaging on a deep level with anything other than each other. I’m leaning more towards the latter (after all, Coppola wrote this movie based partially on her trips to Japan that I would imagine felt very similar to the ones the main characters had). Ultimately, it makes the character look kind of like assholes/jerkass foreigners and I don’t think that’s intentional and it detracts from the main characters’ story. Even with that, I did enjoy the little journey these two characters had a lot, it felt sincere and even with its faults is a film worth watching.

Rating: B

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

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Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd, James D’Arcy, Chris Larkin, Edward Woodall, Robert Pugh, Max Benitz, Max Pirkis

Director: Peter Weir

Summary: During the Napoleonic Wars, a brash British captain pushes his ship and his crew to their limits in pursuit of a French war vessel around South America

Other Nominations: Director, Sound Editing*, Sound Mixing, Art Direction, Cinematography*, Makeup, Costume Design, Film Editing, Visual Effects

Filming a movie on a boat sucks; filming a movie on a boat with loads of child actors (who are bound by child labor laws in terms of how many hours they can work) REALLY sucks, yet the filmmakers really were committed to an level of authenticity and technical detail about turn of the 19th century naval warfare that does justice to the novels it’s based on and pulls no punches. There are a lot of strong points here-the action sequences are exciting and well-executed, Jack Aubrey (Crowe) borrows a lot from genre tropes but is still a very likable, flawed main character and Crowe’s performance is great, and the cinematography is interesting. It’s distinctive because you get a lot of dutch angles that slowly rock back and forth, simulating being on a ship in a way. The weakest part of the movie is the narrative, which follows a lot of expected territory (the captain has his white whale, there’s the threat of mutiny because the captain is stretching everybody too thin working for his own ends), but even if it’s nothing groundbreaking it’s not outright bad or anything. Ultimately, this is a film I probably admire more than anything else about it because of the clear effort, thought and craftsmanship that went into making it, but the narrative, characters and action are good enough for me to recommend it.

Rating: B