"Girlie, tough ain't enough."
Isn't it nice to know that the Hollywood powers-that-be still allow someone like Clint Eastwood to make movies for grown-ups? In these days of bloated action franchises and mindless 'tweener comedies, when any movie that fails to gross $100 million in its opening weekend is considered a bomb, it often feels like there's little alternative for the minority of viewers more concerned with story than empty spectacle. Fortunately, after a long and successful career proving his worth as a box office draw in Spaghetti Westerns, police thrillers, and silly comedies with orangutan co-stars, Eastwood has essentially been given free reign to do whatever he feels like doing, which lately has been directing intelligent, contemplative adult dramas. Sometimes this leads to well-intentioned misfires like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but at Eastwood's best we get gems like Unforgiven, Mystic River, and Million Dollar Baby.
A quiet, thoughtful film about a seemingly hopeless female boxer (Hillary Swank) and her reluctant mentor (Eastwood), Million Dollar Baby is hardly the uplifting "Rocky for Girls" sports picture you'd expect. Instead, it's more a meditation on the themes of redemption, grief, and loss. Swank earned her second Oscar with a performance of studied nuance and subtlety, lacking the showboating theatrics that usually impress the Academy voters. Eastwood's direction is likewise restrained and spare, a stark contrast to the flamboyant excess of the film's main awards competitor, Martin Scorsese's The Aviator.
A dark horse Academy Awards victor, Million Dollar Baby was initially released to theaters in late 2004 with little fanfare or industry hype. Glowing reviews from some prominent critics built the buzz, and strong word of mouth carried the film forward to solid box office returns. Certain political interests attempted to create a false controversy around the movie's subject matter (if you aren't already familiar with the storyline, I'm not going to spoil it here), but their claims were totally baseless. The film is a personal drama, not an issue movie. The actions of its characters are borne not out of any speechifying political agenda, but out of the specifics of their situation, and have devastating personal consequences.
Whether Million Dollar Baby was truly the best picture released in 2004 is debatable. Personally, I found The Aviator more entertaining and rewatchable, and can think of several more deserving movies that went totally overlooked during the year-end awards hoopla. Nonetheless, Eastwood is a fine movie craftsman and has delivered the type of smart, compelling drama that Hollywood used to produce with more regularity until the instant-blockbuster mentality took over. The film is emotional without being schmaltzy or maudlin, and engaging without pandering to its audience. Clint Eastwood doesn't need the awards on his shelf to justify his worth as a filmmaker, but if they allow him to continue directing movies like this that interest him, I have no objection.
The HD DVD:
Million Dollar Baby debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Warner Home Video. HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc specifically contains an optional DVD layer for Standard Definition playback) or in a Blu-Ray player.
Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD. If a movie were to receive a higher score on the DVD scale than the HD scale, that does not necessarily mean that the DVD disc looks better than the HD disc. It just means that the DVD compares better in relation to other DVDs than the HD disc compares to other HD discs.
The Million Dollar Baby HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame. Since HD is natively 16:9 in shape, the HD DVD format does not require anamorphic enhancement as used on DVD.
Although its lack of sweeping picturesque landscapes or expensive CGI visual effects may make it a surprising choice of early launch title for the HD DVD format, Million Dollar Baby actually has terrific cinematography and looks great in High Definition. The richly contrasty photography makes outstanding use of lighting and shadows, and Eastwood's sense of widescreen composition is expertly balanced. The HD DVD has deep, inky blacks and plenty of shadow detail. The image is sharp and detailed enough to expose every wrinkle in Clint's face, yet no edge enhancement artifacts are visible. Colors and flesh tones are accurately rendered. Mild film grain is present in some scenes, but the digital compression quality is very good and the grain never looks noisy or pixelated, as happens too often on DVD. This may not be a razzle-dazzle type of movie you'll want to show off to all your friends, but it has a fine transfer with a genuinely film-like appearance.
The Million Dollar Baby HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is encoded in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format, which offers higher bit rates than available with traditional Dolby Digital audio found on DVD. The initial launch titles from Warner Bros. have an acknowledged mastering issue where the audio volume is set by default much lower than the comparable DVD edition of the same movie or HD DVDs from other studios. I found that I had to raise my receiver's volume by 10 dB over my usual settings. Like The Last Samurai HD DVD, compensating in this manner was sufficient to bring the audio quality in line with my expectations (which I couldn't say for the disappointing Phantom of the Opera HD DVD's audio).
Despite its setting in the world of boxing, this is a quiet, dialogue-driven movie and doesn't have a showy sound mix. Fortunately, all of the dialogue is delivered clearly and intelligibly, even whispered conversations and Morgan Freeman's gravelly voiceover narration. Surround activity provides a subtle sense of envelopment until the few boxing matches, which become very aggressive and immersive. As with the video quality, the soundtrack may not inspire you to use it as demonstration material, but it is an accurate presentation of the filmmakers' intentions.
A French dub track is also available in DD+ 5.1. Optional subtitles include English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish. All of the optional subtitles are authored to appear half-in/half-out of the 2.35:1 movie image, which is very annoying for many front projection users.
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. All of the bonus features on this HD DVD launch title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. Future releases may offer more advanced features. The interactive menus have a handy feature that allows you to view a still from each of the supplements before you watch and provides the running time. The menus are accompanied by annoying clicking sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).
All of the supplements from the 2-disc DVD edition appear to have carried over. However, the soundtrack CD from the 3-disc Deluxe Edition DVD is not included.
No interactive features have been included.
- James Lipton Takes on Three (24:44). A roundtable discussion with Clint Eastwood, Hillary Swank, and Morgan Freeman held on the morning after the film's Academy Awards victory. James Lipton, the pretentious windbag from Inside the Actors' Studio, hosts. The featurette is a reasonably decent interview despite Lipton.
- Born to Fight (19:11). A discussion of the sport of boxing, featuring real female boxer Lucia Rijker and the cast of the film.
- Producers' Round 15 (13:13). This featurette focuses on the difficulty of adapting the collection of F.X. Toole short stories into a feature film.
- Theatrical Trailer
Perhaps a little overrated in all of its Oscar fortune, Million Dollar Baby is nevertheless a compelling personal drama of loss and redemption. Some might argue that it's the first actually good movie to be released on the HD DVD format. Delivered to High Definition disc with fine picture and sound quality, and moderately interesting bonus features, the disc is a clear recommendation.
HD DVD Review Index
The Last Samurai (HD DVD)
The Phantom of the Opera (HD DVD)
Serenity (HD DVD)
Swordfish (HD DVD)
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player
Toshiba HD DVD Product Introduction Event