boxing

Worst Best Picture: Is Million Dollar Baby Better or Worse Than Crash?

million dollar baby

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2004 winner Million Dollar Baby. Is it better than Crash?

Roger Ebert gave a spoiler warning in his review of Million Dollar Baby because the movie isn’t about what it appears to be about. It’s been a full decade, but I’m still really reluctant to talk about the bulk of this one. Every single other movie on the list doesn’t really need this warning (short of possibly Rebecca, but not really) but if you don’t know what happens in Million Dollar Baby and you don’t want to know, I suggest you go watch it before you read this. It’s just not possible to talk about the movie without getting into the best part, which is the big reveal of a second act. I’m not going to actually say how it ends, but it’s important to know that this movie isn’t what it appears to be, and if you don’t know what it is, for real, go watch it first.

They marketed Million Dollar Baby as a boxing movie. They showed it as the story of Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), the traditional old boxing trainer who might be a little washed up but “still got it!” and Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), the upstart female boxer who has lots of moxie but needs to learn the ropes. It was called the “female Rocky” and it looked a little obvious. I never understood how a movie that transparent could win, but I also never really looked into it. I put it off until the end, which is why we’re just getting to it now.

That was a mistake, because this is possibly the saddest movie I’ve ever seen that wasn’t about genocide. It’s a movie about the right to live as you want. It’s a movie about legacy and the fear that you’ve misplaced your trust in the wrong beliefs or people. It’s a vital look inward into self, and there just so happens to be some boxing in it. The entire campaign to tell people what this movie was about, to borrow a sports term, was a goddamn head fake.

Maggie wants to box but Dunn “doesn’t train girls.” This is firmly in what can be called the “Gran Torino arc” of Eastwood’s career. He’s still the actor he used to be, but the roles he has to play now are a lot different. Rather than his old “beaten down early in life by hard circumstances” now he’s just a reflection of what time does to a person. He’s made up his mind about what he’s going to do, dammit, and now he just needs all you kids to go to hell. Maggie won’t take no for an answer and demands to be trained. She has innate talent but no training at all, and Dunn is impressed enough by her attitude that he takes her on.

They train and she wins a bunch of fights and it goes how you’d think it would. So far, so good. The first act is a traditional boxing story, and it’s pretty cookie-cutter one. There’s nothing to see until Maggie takes on a dirty fighter in Europe who knocks her out with a sucker punch after a round is over. Maggie lands with her neck on a stool and she is paralyzed for life.

That’s where I have to leave the story, but it becomes a story about difficult topics then. Maggie’s family can’t accept the life she made for herself and they can’t accept the new life of lifetime paralysis that she has been struck with. Dunn had trouble accepting being a trainer for women and has even more trouble with the survivor’s guilt of being able to walk. Maggie wants to believe that her victories mean she realized her dream, but the reality of her life being struck by irreversible tragedy as a result of it makes that difficult. It is one of the saddest movies of all time, period, and you have to watch all five stages of grief play out on screen.

Million Dollar Baby has problematic elements. Jay Baruchel plays a really strangely used “simple” character (it’s not really discussed if he has an actual issue or if he’s just “simple” so I’m not sure how to say it delicately)  and the movie tries to assign other characters morality based on how they treat him. Morgan Freeman plays Dunn’s partner, but he’s largely there to provide narration and someone for Eastwood to grimace at, even though he won an Oscar for the role. Largely, everyone but Eastwood and Swank gets so little to do that they aren’t necessary outside of the fact that you need supporting characters for the main ones to have someone to bounce off. Maggie’s stupid, Southern family is especially depressing, since they represent a tremendous failure to provide something interesting. They’re just dumb and are obsessed with material possessions, the foolsThey don’t know that what matters most is what’s in here, in your heart, you clowns! For real, though, their presence is a huge tonal departure, and while it’s supposed to be it lacks any hint of nuance.

None of the faults ruin the movie, and this is an absolute must-watch. It’s just not perfect, but that’s not enough of a crime to damn it.

The Best Part: Hilary Swank won for Best Actress, and she absolutely earned it. If the sadness of her trying to still play the plucky, hopeful character she is through full-body paralysis doesn’t get to you, then you should check and make sure that your blood is still red.

The Worst Part: I think the nice way to say this is that this movie lacks subtlety. The real way to say it is that Million Dollar Baby swings a club with some of its dumb characters. Maggie’s family has to be established as cold and uncaring “white trash” people who don’t appreciate that she’s following her dreams, okay, cool. But they don’t need to have six fanny packs for five people and speak like they’re SNL parodies of the South. With a little lighter touch they could come off as really mean, but in this case the message isn’t “your family may leave you in dark times” it’s “these cartoon people hate this real woman for having a real struggle.”

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It is tremendously better than Crash. Even if it was just the first 40 minutes of the movie as some kind of boxing short film where the message was “Clint Eastwood learns that gals can punch, too!” it would be better than Crash. Michael Pena is in both and might be better in Crash, though, and that’s as close to a compliment as I’ll go.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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Worst Best Picture: Is Rocky Better or Worse Than Crash?

rocky37ul1.6843

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1976 winner Rocky. Is it better than Crash?

Network and Taxi Driver both came out in 1976, the same year Sylvester Stallone cemented his place in pop culture with Rocky. There is absolutely no question that the endurance of Rocky as an underdog story and the permanent representation of boxing is deserved. It’s Rocky. You don’t need me to tell you what Rocky is.

It’s strange, though, to consider it as a “film great” against Network and Taxi Driver. They’re both better movies, but not to the degree that this is some kind of historical slight. I’ve never heard anyone call 1976 a travesty in the way people talk about Saving Private Ryan losing to Shakespeare in Love or The English Patient beating Fargo. The official Oscars website has a big picture of Frances McDormand on their page for 1997 despite the loss, but 1976 belongs to Sly and Rocky.

There are many movies on this list that I’ve never seen, but there’s only a few that seem strange to me to have missed. Until a few days ago, I had never actually watched all of Rocky. It’s a weird thing to do for the first time. I’ve seen so many parodies and homages and references to it, but I’d never seen the source material.

The overwhelming thing about Rocky is that you just about can’t understand a damn word Sly Stallone says. Rocky the character is supposed to be a sleepy, kinda-dumb-kinda-not every-man, of course, but it’s weird to have heard so many impressions and then hear how much weirder the voice actually is. Sly’s the same weird guy in every movie, but as Rocky he’s full-on marblemouth. You probably already know that, but it’s no less weird to finally hear it happen.

He’s a boxer who never got a shot and then he gets one. He fights the heavyweight champ. He gets the girl, though he’s always had the girl. It doesn’t need to be more than it is. It’s Rocky, the feel-good punching story of our lives. It’s not the chilling tale of Taxi Driver and it’s not the risky parable of Network, but it’s fine. Rocky shouldn’t be what we have as the history of 1976, but it’s no huge insult to its betters, either.

The Best Part: The climactic fight is great, of course, but it’s the bit you already know: the training montage with the art museum steps and the glass of eggs and the train tracks and the song. The movie wanders around Rocky’s love life for a long time and they spend too much time establishing that you should feel bad for this lug, but the montage is iconic for a reason. It’s hard not to get excited, even though you know what’s coming.

The Worst Part: I spent a lot of time thinking about Talia Shire, the woman who plays Rocky’s love interest Adrian. She’s trapped in a weird place in Rocky. Rocky genuinely loves her and her life’s a mess, so it’s probably for the best that she falls for him, but she still doesn’t really get a lot to do. No one other than Rocky himself really gets much to do, honestly. There’s nothing really below the surface for anyone else, and some of the “emotional” outbursts from other people feel strange because they’re mostly ciphers.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I’ve mostly used this space to assault Crash as a dumb, hateful view of race in America. It’s definitely that, but it’s also the story of unlikable people becoming likeable and vice versa. Crash wants to play with your emotions; the good guys aren’t always good and the bad guys are usually complicated. Crash gets a lot of hate because it’s ham-fisted, but it’s trying to do something complicated. Rocky isn’t trying to do anything complicated at all. If these were both made with the same amount of care, Crash would be the far better story. They’re not, though, and Sly Stallone’s love-song to underdogs is more compelling.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image credit: here.

Sexual Bravado and Permanent Eye Rolling: “Fight Night” by Migos

“Fight Night” by Migos
Produced by: Quality Control Music, Atlanta, GA

Jonathan May

As is typical of Southern rap music, “Fight Night” by Migos addresses its core audience of young men with all the traditional trappings of unearned bravado, sexual boast, and desperation to prove its own authority. The song is tight, but I’m not here to wax eloquent on the brilliant beat structure or seamless flow between verses and chorus. This song, like so many others, fails to provide even the barest newness beyond the trapping of the video itself: two female pugilists facing off against one another. Curious then that the lyrical content of the song focuses on “beating that pussy up like fight night” (obviously here meant to be sexual and not violent from the artists’ perspective). The problem with this verbiage is that tacitly the violence is inherent in how they would sex these ladies up, should they be present and willing. The camera work doesn’t help with this reading of the video; in it, the camera is often positioned beneath each of the three dudes as they rap, so as to heighten the “victor” effect on their end. Eerily enough, this camera position also functions as if looking up at any one of them in bed as they are “beating that pussy up.” Were I girlfriend to one of the three Migos rappers, I would live in a state of permanent eye rolling. Such bravado is obviously a mere construction, given that the song is not addressed to the women at all, assuring them of sexual prowess, but instead to the awkward, loping group of homies in the background. It certainly does not appear as if the two women boxers need any help from the men, at least not sexually within the confines of the video. If anything, they look like they could beat the crap out of the skinny, chain-laden trio in a second. I only poke fun because the bravado of their lyrics tempts such trying. There have always been songs of sexual boasting and conquest, but none showing such little effort. It is truly unfortunate that the beat is so catchy, as any number of better artists could have used it for a more thematically gestalt, summertime, trap-music hit.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com