Though not directed by an auteurist-approved figure (Mark Robson has never attracted any cult to my knowledge), this is the greatest of producer Val Lewton’s justly celebrated low-budget chillers–a beautifully wrought story about the discovery of devil worshippers in Greenwich Village that fully lives up to the morbid John Donne quote framing the action. Intricately plotted over its 71 minutes, by screenwriters Charles O’Neal, De Witt Bodeen, and an uncredited Lewton, so that what begins rationally winds up as something far weirder than a thriller plot, this 1943 tale of a young woman (Kim Hunter in her first screen role) searching for her troubled sister (Jean Brooks) exudes a distilled poetry of doom that extends to all the characters as well as to the noirish bohemian atmosphere. (In a fascinating intertextual detail, the horny psychiatrist clawed to death by an offscreen feline in Lewton’s previous Cat People–played by Tom Conway, George Sanders’s brother–is resurrected here.) Mon 1/3, 6:30 PM, and Tue 1/4, 8:15 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center.
Kevin Spacey spent more than a decade trying to build a biopic around reptilian pop singer Bobby Darin, and his determination paid off in this glorious mess of a movie (2004). The production numbers and nightclub showstoppers are impressive not only for Spacey’s impersonation of Darin but for their skillful evocation of musical moments from the golden age of Hollywood, which are a world apart from postmodern exercises like Chicago and The Phantom of the Opera. Spacey also directed and cowrote the disjointed script, which adopts the self-referential mode of All That Jazz as it puzzles over Darin’s confused parentage, loyal entourage, and marriage to Sandra Dee. This sags in the middle, and Spacey overlooks some of Darin’s more interesting films (John Cassavetes’s Too Late Blues, Hubert Cornfield’s Pressure Point). But as long as Spacey is singing, the movie soars. With John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, Kate Bosworth, and Brenda Blethyn. PG-13, 121 min. (JR)
For all his grace and precision as a director, Clint Eastwood (like Martin Scorsese) operates at the mercy of his scripts. But this time he’s got a terrific one, an unorthodox love story and religious parable adapted by Paul Haggis from stories in F.X. Toole’s Rope Burns. Eastwood plays a gym owner who reluctantly agrees to train and manage a 31-year-old hillbilly woman (Hilary Swank) who wants to box, while Morgan Freeman, as an ex-fighter who helps him out, supplies the voice-over narration. Eventually this leads to a few awkward point-of-view issues, but the past-tense narration enhances the sense of fatality. Haggis’s dialogue is worthy of Hemingway, and the three leads border on perfection. As grim as The Set-Up (1948) and Fat City (1972), as dark and moody as The Hustler and Bird, this may break your heart. PG-13, 132 min. (JR)
From the December 4, 2004 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Million Dollar Baby
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Paul Haggis
With Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Hilary Swank, Jay Baruchel, and Mike Colter
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by John Logan
With Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Adam Scott, and Ian Holm
Despite his grace and precision as a director, Clint Eastwood, like Martin Scorsese, is at the mercy of his scripts. But in Million Dollar Baby he’s got a terrific one, adapted by Paul Haggis from Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner.
This book was the first published work by Jerry Boyd, writing under the pseudonym F.X. Toole, after 40 years of rejection slips. Boyd had been a fight manager and “cut man,” the guy who stops boxers from bleeding so they can stay in the ring, and he was 70 when the book came out; he died two years later, just before completing his first novel. This movie is permeated by those 40 years of rejection, and the wisdom of age is evident in it as well. Henry Bumstead, the brilliant production designer who helped create the minimalist canvas — he was art director on Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and has been working for Eastwood since 1992 — will turn 90 in March, and Eastwood himself will be 75 a couple months later. All these years pay off in economy as well as observation.
The offscreen narration is by a one-eyed ex-boxer named Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), Scrap for short, who helps run a gym called the Hit Pit. But the story belongs mainly to his best friend, Frankie Dunn, the gym’s owner (Eastwood), and Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), the 31-year-old hillbilly Frankie reluctantly agrees to train and manage. This leads to some awkward point-of-view issues concerning what Scrap saw and what he merely surmised or heard about that are problematic only if one chooses to focus on them. Having him recount events sometime after they happened only adds to the fatalistic noir atmosphere. As a boxing movie, this is every bit as grim as The Set-Up (1949) and Fat City (1972), and as an underlit look at a seedy American subculture, set mainly in a few lairlike locations, it’s as dark and doom ridden as the 1961 The Hustler (with which it paradoxically shares a ‘Scope format) and Eastwood’s own 1988 Bird.
I can’t think of many things I’m less drawn to than boxing. Million Dollar Baby tends to view it as neither an especially interesting sport nor a metaphor for something else (as Raging Bull does), but rather as a particularly acute form of savagery in a savage world. “Boxing is about respect,” Scrap observes early on, “getting it for yourself and taking it away from the other guy.” Yet unlike Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta, Maggie shows few signs of vengefulness or spite. She merely wants to make her mark in a world where she’s long been labeled trailer trash.
Apart from that, we know little about her past or about Frankie’s, and one of this movie’s triumphs is that it says as much as it does despite minimizing its backstories and offscreen space. The performances of the three leads are perfect, so we don’t care that we don’t know what lies right outside the Hit Pit. Unlike most other Eastwood films, this one has no sex, depicted or remembered. We know Frankie has a daughter and that he writes her every week, but the letters are all returned and we never learn anything else about her. We also know nothing about her mother. When we belatedly get an account of how Scrap lost his eye and how Frankie was involved, this information almost feels like a glut. We learn more about Frankie’s troubled Catholicism (he habitually attends mass and has an ongoing dialogue with a priest afterward) and his nurturing of his Irish roots (he studies Gaelic and reads Yeats) than we do about his everyday life, especially before he agrees to train Maggie. We never learn how Maggie spent her 20s. And the two glimpses of Maggie’s mother and some of her other family members may be more than we care to know.
Conservatives routinely link themselves to “family values,” yet this movie by a conservative filmmaker gives us one of the most negative views of family I’ve ever encountered. In a bleak world, where neither family nor religious faith offers any lasting respite, Million Dollar Baby offers redemption that derives from the informal and nameless loving relationships people create on their own rather than inherit from family, church, or society.
The movie’s most memorable image – included in the trailer, in spite of its apparent irrelevance to the plot — occurs in a filling station, when Maggie glimpses and waves at a little girl holding a puppy in the front seat of an adjacent truck, a character we never see again. Later we see Maggie and Frankie enjoying lemon pie together at a roadside joint. Such moments, though surrounded by ugliness, darkness, and violence, offer all the transcendence we need. In a context so close to despair, small but considered acts of kindness and fleeting moments of happiness carry the force of epiphanies.
Lots can be said for The Aviator as entertainment, though not much for it as edification. John Logan’s witty yet shallow script suggests we’ll learn something significant about the psychology of Howard Hughes (1905-’76), but it doesn’t deliver.
Logan and Scorsese held my attention for all 169 minutes — through the comic extravaganza of Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) blowing a wad on his first talkie (the 1930 Hell’s Angels), the spectacle of his building and flying planes while romancing all the pretty ladies in sight, and his intrigues as he defies and outwits corporate entities larger than his own, such as MGM, TWA, and the U.S. government. But then the movie concludes with Hughes repeating the phrase “the wave of the future” like a broken record, and I couldn’t figure out whether Logan and Scorsese were trying to illustrate a Hughes tic I hadn’t heard about, evoke the specter of future multicorporate takeovers, or simply distract the audience from its questions.
The movie starts off on the wrong foot by offering a scene of young Howard standing naked in a tub in an ornate living room while his mother sponges him down and teaches him how to spell quarantine, warning him about the horrors of typhus and “the colored.” It’s as if Logan and Scorsese wanted one pithy bit of psychological backstory that could account for the multifaceted craziness of Hughes as a grown-up, including his phobia of germs, his paranoia, and his reclusiveness. This is the only glimpse of his boyhood offered, and it’s less an explanation than a cover for the absence of one, a ruse to keep us from asking too many questions. It’s also a symptom of a cinephiliac malady that I’ll call an acute case of Rosebud — a need to make numerous visual and stylistic references to Citizen Kane even though they cloud more issues than they clarify.
I can guess how these references might have been rationalized. It’s well-known that Orson Welles considered making a film about Hughes before he opted for William Randolph Hearst; some of the details are in Welles’s autobiographical F for Fake. But it’s wise to remember that Kane is a fictional character and that the use of the word “Rosebud” as a key to unlock the mystery of his life is undermined in the film’s final speech: “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life.” Using quarantine as if it were an equivalent of Rosebud, even in passing, is a sign that this movie is more interested in pop mythology than in getting to the bottom of any character, real or fictional.
Admittedly, keeping audiences from asking too many questions is one way of defining entertainment, and for the most part Scorsese does succeed as an entertainer. If we accept, contrary to some biographies, that Hughes’s romantic involvement with Katharine Hepburn was a major part of his life, we’re primed for one of the film’s most nuanced achievements in pop mythology and can sit back and enjoy Cate Blanchett’s crafty impersonation and Logan’s hilarious dialogue for her. (”I adore the theater,” she says. “Only alive onstage. I’ll teach you. We’ll see some Ibsen. If the Republicans haven’t outlawed him by now. You’re not a Republican, are you?”) And even if we can’t believe quite as readily in Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner, her character’s maternal sweetness is still touching.
Similarly, Scorsese’s climactic treatment of Hughes crash-landing his XF-11 plane in Beverly Hills — after scraping off the tops and sides of buildings — is a spectacular and highly suspenseful bit of bravura filmmaking that works best if we can overlook how people other than Hughes were affected. As Michael Atkinson notes in the Village Voice, “It’s hard not to wonder who else was hurt or killed in that crash, but their names are apparently lost to or bought out of history.” I wondered the same thing, and by not taking up the question Scorsese ultimately fails for me as an entertainer, though some will no doubt see the shock-and-awe crash as funny (as David Denby did). Others will be disturbed by the loose ends and reminded of our current tendency to overlook the casualties caused by “visionary” leaders.
The Aviator focuses on the early adulthood of Hughes — “during his scrappy years from the late 1920s to late 1940s,” as one piece of infotainment puts it, “when he fought the Hollywood establishment and pushed bounds on sex and violence in film, dated parades of starlets, and oversaw creation of the world’s biggest and fastest planes.” I was disappointed that it stopped just before Hughes took over the RKO studio and revealed contradictory aspects of his right-wing politics. He assigned several RKO directors a film called I Married a Communist in the late 40s and early 50s as a test of their patriotism, figuring that anyone who turned the project down was automatically suspect. Yet he also protected a leading Hollywood radical, Nicholas Ray, from being blacklisted so that Ray could patch up several Hughes features. But my ideal Hughes biopic isn’t Scorsese’s, which, as the title suggests, is mainly about the man’s obsession with planes — and about the wealth, power, and glamour of the youthful Charles Foster Kane.
A more charitable reading of this movie’s thematic thrust might say it broaches the mystery of how a dysfunctional obsessive managed to accomplish as much as he did, beyond what his billions bought him. This reading might even fit in with the Kane references insofar as the enduring popularity of Citizen Kane probably has more to do with a worship of power –Welles’s and Kane’s — than with an exploration of the title hero’s personal failings.
But by and large I think this movie’s chief function is to give Scorsese an opportunity to indulge in the pleasures of big-time filmmaking and to treat the audience to a heady dose of glamour — knocking our socks off with period re-creations of the Cocoanut Grove, Grauman’s Chinese, and two-strip Technicolor. All that’s justification enough for any entertainment, and on this level The Aviator does even better than most of Hughes’s own movies (not including Scarface, which he had the good sense to let Howard Hawks direct). There just isn’t a lot to chew on once it’s over. If you ignore most questions, you don’t wind up with many answers.
If Rushmore (1998) recalls J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) offers a touch of Franny and Zooey, this Wes Anderson feature suffers from the mannerist self-consciousness of Seymour: An Introduction. Each successive movie seems further removed from real human behavior, though the attitudes heremainly invested in Bill Murray as the title character, an over-the-hill filmmaker-oceanographerseem as authentic as ever, and the fantasy trimmings are noticeably more lavish, drawing on the resources of Italy’s Cinecitta studio and recalling Fellini in their cartoon colors. The secondary eccentricsOwen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Bud Cortresourcefully juggle about two character traits apiece, and the climactic rescue sequence is characteristically underplayed. Noah Baumbach collaborated on the arch script, whose bittersweet weirdness leaves a residue even as the narrative disintegrates. R, 118 min. (JR)