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Like a father, like a daughter: (l-r) Eastwood and Swank in Million Dollar Baby.

Love and Devotion
By Shawn Stone

Million Dollar Baby
Directed by Clint Eastwood

The transformation is complete. Clint Eastwood, who first achieved iconic status playing a heartless bounty hunter in spaghetti westerns, and cemented his antihero credentials as an ice-cold cop, Dirty Harry Callahan, in a series of increasingly violent thrillers, has become a tenderhearted old man.

Part of this was inevitable: It’s hard to play an invincible killer in your mid-70s. Part of it, however, relates to Eastwood’s evolution as a filmmaker and storyteller: He’s more interested in violent emotions than gunplay. Think of how shocking the few scenes of actual violence were in his last picture, Mystic River, for example. Each seemed to come out of nowhere, and felt both inexplicable and terrifying.

There’s violence in Million Dollar Baby—it’s a boxing picture, after all—but there’s also enough love to fuel a dozen melodramas. The principals are Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a gym owner, boxing manager and trainer; Eddie (Morgan Freeman), Frankie’s only friend, a former boxer who runs the gym; and Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a would-be boxer who hangs around trying to get Frankie to become her trainer. Eddie and Frankie trade monosyballic barbs laced with . . . mutual caring. And, when Maggie finally wears down Frankie’s resistance (as we know she will, from their first meeting), their father-daughter relationship grows deeper than the audience could possibly anticipate.

What keeps the heavy sentiment from turning mawkish? A rough-hewn humor, for one thing. More important, however, is low-key way the story is presented. Eastwood has always been a spare filmmaker, both literally—he shoots quicker, and films far fewer takes than most directors—and figuratively, in terms of how he presents his story. He gets the point across, and moves on.

As classical Hollywood storytelling has devolved over the last two decades, Eastwood’s resolute classicism has come to stand out more and more. So, the fact that the film is peppered with stock characters out of classic, gritty, Warner Bros.-style Depression cinema—the hopelessly deluded would-be boxer, the vicious champ, the predatory manager and the grasping, greedy family-from-hell all make appearances—seems almost avant-garde.

The story follows Maggie’s career, and Frankie’s increasing attachment to her, up to a point. And then, as you may have heard, “something” happens, and the film takes a very different turn. That’s when the film’s others themes, guilt and absence, emerge.

These are suggested early on: Frankie goes to mass every morning, and regularly baits his priest (Brian O’Byrne) with nettlesome questions about the Holy Trinity and the Immaculate Conception. Father Horvak sees through this, however—the priest can sense the enormous burden of guilt Frankie carries around. Some of this we learn the particulars of, like the sense of obligation Frankie feels toward Eddie. Some, like the reason his daughter never replies to his weekly letters, we do not. But it’s the accumulated weight of a lifetime of failure and regret that elevates the film from melodrama to tragedy, and makes the film’s ending so haunting. And tender.

Redrum Remix

Hide and Seek
Directed by John Polson

Things are getting really bad when you can figure out the concluding surprise of a horror film, even when you’ve spent a good deal of said film with your eyes averted from the onscreen gore. But such is the case with Hide and Seek, a very pedestrian bloodletter. The only thing keeping this potboiler from teetering completely over the edge into ludicrousness is solid acting, not so much by star Robert De Niro, but by youngster Dakota Fanning.

De Niro is David Calloway, a bereaved Manhattan widower and psychologist trying to boost daughter Emily (Fanning) out of the near catatonic state she’s been in since the suicide of her mother (Amy Irving). Despite the misgivings of Em’s own doc, and David’s colleague, Katherine (Famke Janssen), David relocates. After all, if you were in a similar situation, wouldn’t you gladly trade in the distractions, not to mention health-care facilities, of New York City for an upstate marked by eerie silences, bug-eyed neighbors and a spooky house, perched desolately on the end of a dead-end lane, just above the creepy woodlands? This should be audience’s first clue that all is not as it seems, and perhaps give them a pause to consider whether they might want to sneak into another movie.

For those brave hearts who wish to continue, however, director John Polson and his screenwriter, Ari Schlossberg, present middle-of-the-night fright sights in the bathroom, where crayoned graffiti hurls nasty accusations at David, while Emily lurks, enormous eyed, in corners, babbling on about her newfound, presumably invisible friend Charley. New neighbor, and recent divorcee, Elizabeth (Elisabeth Shue) doesn’t know what she’s in for when she shows up to make friends, but with ominous dialogue like “I know you think I should check her back into the hospital, but I want to wait two weeks,” you can’t help but think that this rural utopia must not be close to a cineplex, hence the character’s stupidity. Nearly everybody in the film could have an ulterior motive, let alone personality—is one of them Charley? As mentioned above, I figured it out quite quickly, although inwardly I groaned and hoped that I was wrong. My son pointed out to me all the flaws in my “whodunit”; the fact that he had quite a few solid points only underscored the flimsy nature of the narrative.

Far more creepy than the blood in the tub or things that went bump in the night was Fanning’s, er, haunting performance. Is Emily truly cracked? Is her intense brooding all because of her mother’s death, or does it reflect some deeper psychosis? As a performer, Fanning more than matches De Niro, who shuffles his way through the film, perhaps aptly since, after all, he is playing a grieving, confused and aged father forced to deal with a strange little girl. Toward the end, however, De Niro gets to make hay amid the film’s concluding gore and splatter. Elsewhere, the movie is rife with usual suspects and machinations. Who are the perky, preserves-pushing neighbors next door, and what do they really want? Why would a friend just pop up to see you in the middle of the night, especially suspecting that something evil your way comes? Not to mention pesky questions that any basic autopsy would reveal, but wait, I’m giving away plot spoilers. Suffice it to say that if you’ve seen it before in a horror or murder thriller, you’re bound to see it again, to lesser effect, with Hide and Seek.

—Laura Leon

Stupefying

Alone in the Dark
Directed by Uwe Boll

January may be take-out-the- trash time for Hollywood, but that’s still no excuse to unload a pile of garbage like Alone in the Dark on an unsuspecting public. I say unsuspecting because the video game from which it takes its name is reported to be rather well-written and suspenseful. Neither adjective applies to the movie, which makes no sense whatsoever and is astoundingly monotonous. You know a film is in trouble when it begins with two long paragraphs of narrated exposition that explain away what little intrigue the story might have contained. To whit: An extinct tribe of Native Americans somehow “opened the gates” to some semi-mystical monsters who like to lurk in the dark. Yet the characters are never alone and rarely in the dark, which dispenses with the game’s spook factor right from the get-go.

Christian Slater plays Edward Carnby, an investigator of the paranormal who discovers an “important artifact” in Chile. After fighting off some crazy guy who wants it, he takes the artifact to his former girlfriend, Aline (Tara Reid), the foremost anthropologist in her field. We know Aline is some kind of expert because her hair is pulled into the tight-bun style worn only by bimbos trying to look professional onscreen. Yes, Reid trying to play brainy is a hoot, except that she recites her lines with such effort that it’s pitiable. Slater gets all the laughable dialogue, such as “I have to take a trip down memory lane” (spoken during a two-block car ride). Once the Alien-knock-off monsters show up, all Edward has to say is: “We gotta get outta here.” One of the many settings they’ve gotta get outta is the orphanage where he grew up. Back in his childhood, 20 orphans had slithery evil insectoids fused into their spines, turning them into zombies-on-command. Or maybe it was 19 orphans—this fact, like a lot of others, gets changed through sheer carelessness. There’s also a paramilitary force running around shooting endless rounds of ammo, but these scenes appear to be leftovers from another movie that were spliced in for filler. Stephen Dorff plays a commando who gets really mad and curses a lot, probably because the character has nothing else to do, or maybe because Dorff is really mad at being stuck in such a crummy role.

Apparently, Edward isn’t one of the zombies, but it’s hard to tell by Slater’s monotonic performance. And judging by his oddly expressionless face, he either overdid it with Botox or overdosed on Wellbutrin, or both. Then again, those viewers who manage to sit through the film’s entirety may find themselves similarly zonked by its imbecility.

—Ann Morrow


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