Clint Eastwood has been one of the most prominent names in Hollywood ever since A Fist Full of Dollars put him on the map in 1964. Recently he has been doing more directing than acting and is a force to be reckoned when it comes to the box office. Movies like Mystic River and Flags of Our Fathers have been well received by audiences but Million Dollar Baby is the most acclaimed title under his belt from the past few years.
Million Dollar Baby hit theaters in 2004 and really tore it up at the Oscar Awards. Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, Best Achievement in Directing, and Best Motion Picture of the Year are the accolades that the movie walked away with. Not too shabby if you ask me but Oscar Awards often spark debate among viewers about whether or not the film deserved the accolade. After watching Million Dollar Baby I can honestly say that I feel it got everything that it deserved.
If you have not seen Million Dollar Baby then just know going in that this isn't a Rocky movie. The plot doesn't revolve around two people getting into a ring to beat the snot out of each other and action isn't the main focus (though it's in there). This is a slow developing and emotional character piece that features humanity that is every bit as riveting as its fight scenes. Characters are rich, deep, and personalities evolve throughout the 132 minute run time. Million Dollar Baby stuck with me long after I watched it and I couldn't help but talk about it thoroughly with people "around the water cooler" the very next day.
The movie starts with a thoughtful narrative by Scrap (Morgan Freeman) that sets the tone and introduces the characters. The first one we meet is Frankie (Clint Eastwood) who is a boxing trainer and one of the best cutmen in the sport. He spends his life alone and doesn't seem to have any family other than a daughter he supposedly writes to. In terms of his professional life he owns a gym and works in the corner of a title-bound fighter. Unfortunately Frankie keeps holding his boxer back from the title match even though he's really ready for it. We learn about his motives as the film continues but I am going to try to keep this as spoil free as possible.
In any event Frankie's boxer signs with another manager and goes on to win the championship without him. This leaves Frankie with nothing more than a gym that takes in barely enough revenue to stay afloat. It's after this that he reluctantly decides to take Maggie (Hilary Swank) under his wing and train her to throw a punch.
Maggie takes a liking to Frankie immediately (he's the reason she's there in the first place) and starts calling him "boss", which is something that takes him a while to get used to. You see, Frankie doesn't train girls but with some friendly guidance by Scrap he gives the piece of white trash a shot. Yes, I said white trash because that's what Maggie is. She comes from a trailer park, her mother lives off of welfare and is 300 pounds, plus she waitresses and keeps other people's table scraps as a way to save on groceries. Her one passion is boxing and even though she's over 30 she wants nothing more than to step into the ring.
Million Dollar Baby spends a good deal of time focusing on Maggie's training and her relationship with her family. She develops a close bond with Frankie over the course of the film and becomes a substitute daughter of sorts for the old man. The two form a close friendship and come to deeply care for each other as the movie continues. Frankie sticks with Maggie through good times and bad; and believe me when I say bad.
With a plot twist that happens during the film this becomes a two part story rolled into one. Let's just say if you haven't heard about it then your first time watching the movie will leave you stunned when the twist happens. On top of that is the separate though oft intertwined development for the characters of Frankie and Maggie. They each have a history to overcome and they go through much of it together. The manner with which this is handled is artistic and thought-provoking. It really adds weight to the picture and becomes the biggest part in its success.
Million Dollar Baby deserves every award that it received. It is a hard film to watch at times but that is only a testament to how "real" the characters are. Eastwood did an amazing job directing and Swank's performance is nothing less than stellar. In more ways than one this movie broke my expectations and left an impression with me that remained long after the credits rolled.
Million Dollar Baby is presented on Blu-ray with a full 1080p HD output and VC-1 compression. The film is presented on a 25GB disc and preserves the original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Though this film does not have million dollar CGI and special effects up the wazoo it does have one very important thing; amazing cinematography. From start to finish Million Dollar Baby is breathtaking.
Whether it's inside of the seedy gym, at a broken down diner, or showcasing a fight in the middle of a brightly lit ring, just about every scene in this movie looks remarkable. The use of shadows adds style and depth while not coming across as gimmicky. Mood and atmosphere seeps from the sharp detail in ways that most movies now-a-days can't mimic. Some grain appears here and there though most of the time it seems to be for style more than a technical oversight. A movie like this feels at home in high definition and though it may not be a technical marvel it presents a great looking image.
Million Dollar Baby receives 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks for English and French. As far as Blu-ray audio presentation is concerned the track is a little more subdued than I was expecting but not to a disappointing extent. Rear channels are used almost exclusively for ambient sound effects and music while the front bears the weight of all dialogue (of which there is a lot). The HD-DVD had mastering issues that required viewers to tinker with their settings in order to get a desirable output. I didn't have any of these problems with the Blu-ray release and was very pleased with its presentation. Drama soundtracks tend to be on the quieter side anyways so don't expect to have bass that shakes your house and you won't be disappointed.
The bonus content found on the Million Dollar Baby Blu-ray disc is basically copied over from the standard DVD release and the same that were featured on the HD-DVD. This means that they are presented in standard definition with a 480i/p resolution instead of 1080p that the film receives.
"James Lipton Takes on Three" is a 24 minute interview segment that appeared after the film won its awards. With Lipton leading the way enjoyment of this feature will no doubt be scattered due to the polarizing nature of its host. There is some good discussion here though Eastwood, Swank, and Freeman get kind of a pat on the back instead of a worthwhile round of question.
Real-life boxer and actress Lucia Rijker (Billie "The Blue Bear") makes an appearance in a feature called "Born to Fight". Swank and Rijker are the main stars here as they discuss the sport of boxing and its relevance to the film. The focus is more on the sport but there are plenty of interesting bits here with some footage fans will appreciate. The last feature on this disc is "Producers Round 15" where the producers discuss the details about bringing Million Dollar Baby to the big screen. This particular extra wasn't as interesting as the other two but there was a decent amount of background on the project.
Million Dollar Baby is a masterpiece of filmmaking and truly deserved the honors it received from the Academy. It's a strong character piece and develops Frankie and Maggie in ways that don't feel preachy in the least. There have been few films in recent years that made an impact on me to this extent. It's smart, hip, and powerful all the way through. As far as the Blu-ray disc is concerned the video and audio presentation is very good though this isn't a home theater flagship title. The extra features have also been copied over from the standard DVD but the fact that there's anything here say something.
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