Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Babylooks likely to face off with Sideways and The Aviator for the Best Picture award at the Oscars on February 27th. It's getting some of the year's biggest raves.
But it's also likely to face off with Kinsey as the film most heavily protested by the religious press. That's largely because of its subject matter. At first, it looks like a boxing movie, but it soon develops into something else entirely.
If you want to have the controversial events in the second half of the movie spoiled for you, read almost any published review of the film. If you'd rather not know, you can proceed here without worry about spoilers.
Million Dollar Baby will provide plenty of material for discussion and debate among viewers, especially Christian viewers. Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is a boxing trainer and "cut man." When a fighter is wounded, Frankie steps into the ring, wipes up the blood, resets broken bones, and gauges how much more they can take. His assistant, Scrap-Iron (Morgan Freeman) is something of a philosopher, having had years to consider the "whys" and "hows" of boxing after an injury forced him into retirement. The challenge facing them is the desire of Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) to become Frankie's first female trainee, and to take her to a championship match.
The film is far more poetic and contemplative than most sports-oriented films, and its characters end up struggling in a fight far more difficult than a title match. A third act plot twist gives the film its emotional "punch." And while Million Dollar Baby deserves the praise it is earning on all critical fronts for its superb performances and artful scripting, its characters come to conclusions that demonstrate a sorely flawed sense of ethics. As a result, religious press critics in particular are sure to make a fuss over the film in the coming weeks.
We should object when the characters, driven by fear and despair, take matters into their own misguided hands; their decision is as rash as the crime committed by Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) in Eastwood's last Oscar contender, Mystic River. A desirable end does not justify deplorable means. Those final decisions, while understandable and in some ways appealing, demonstrate a failure of hope, a lack of faith, a collapse of courage, and the loss of an opportunity for God to work wonders. In boxing terms, Frankie would say he just "stepped into the punch," but I say he "threw in the towel." And yet, viewers may still feel compassion for Frankie, a spiritual fighter who has been "stripped down to the bare wood," despairing because he feels God has abandoned him.
My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "While the film packs quite a punch, including heavyweight performances from Eastwood, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, and a textured screenplay by Paul Haggis … the movie's morally problematic ending may leave many Catholic viewers feeling emotionally against the ropes. Eastwood is no stranger to dark stories wrought with complex moral questions—and this one ends on a fatalistic note. [Million Dollar Baby] is not as much about boxing as it is about moral wrestling within the arena of the human soul."
Mainstream critics are hailing it as a "masterpiece."
Glorified euthanasia troubles The Sea Inside
Million Dollar Babyisn't the only film to receive a harsh judgment from religious press critics this week. The new film from Alejandro Amenabar, is earning high praise for its artistry, but harsh criticism for a conclusion that condones a "mercy killing."
The Sea Inside portrays the real-life story of Ramó n Sampedro, who, after a tragic diving accident at age 18 left him paralyzed from the neck down, fought a 30-year battle against the legal system for the right to end his own life.
"Simply regarded as a film, it's memorable, closely observing the many details of life and human relationship that truly are worth noticing and celebrating," says Ron Reed (Christianity Today Movies). He notes that the film does work as propaganda in favor of euthanasia: "Unfortunately, The Sea Inside is so resolved to make its point that it's unwilling to lend any credibility to any other side of the argument." But he adds, "It's not mere propaganda. There's real artistry here, and humanity. The film is worth seeing, but only if you're prepared to set aside your aversion to its polemic in order to experience its compassion. You don't have to agree with Ramon Sampedro to admire him, and—ironically enough—to leave the theatre with a deepened appreciation for life."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls Bardem's work "perhaps the standout performance of the year. While wrestling with the thorny issue of euthanasia, director Alejandro Amenabar manages to navigate the film's moral minefield with a fair degree of objectivity resulting in a picture that—though unavoidably controversial—is nevertheless thought-provoking, compelling and hauntingly beautiful. Soberly and sensitively crafted, The Sea Inside is, without a doubt, emotionally moving, yet never overly gloomy or heavy-handed in its sentimentality."
He concludes, "From a Catholic standpoint, what is objectionable is not that Amenabar has chosen to make a film dealing with assisted suicide, but that in doing so he seems to suggest … that self-autonomy is the highest good and 'ultimate freedom,' insisting that 'the right to choose must prevail over all other considerations,' a view distilled to the shibboleth 'life is a right, not an obligation' repeated throughout the picture."
Mainstream critics are not so put-off by the narrative, and they're heralding Bardem's performance as Oscar-worthy.
White Noise—dark ghost story
If the spooky theories that inspired the premise for White Noise have any credibility, you may soon be able to pay extra to pick up voices of the dead on your satellite dish. Sounds hokey—but apparently this new thriller, starring Michael Keaton (Batman, Jackie Brown) as an architect whose wife disappears, is convincing enough to keep the viewers biting their nails and jumping out of their seats.
According to religious press critics, it might also be enough to provoke some meaningful discussion about life after death.
"If White Noise were just another earnest independent film pushing bad science and bad spirituality on its audience—like What the Bleep Do We Know?—it would be a numbing bore," writes Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies). "But the film has its surprises. For one thing, it is genuinely scary, and one of the most chilling, frightening flicks I've seen in years. For another, it ends on a note that is not as rah-rah for the supernatural as you might expect. In its search for spiritual realities beyond this life, it may even be useful as a theological conversation piece—and that has to count for something."
"It's impossible to follow any reasonable trail to the big revelation," writes Bob Smithouser (Plugged In), "which is an incoherent marriage of supernatural shenanigans and serial-killer shtick. Some of the violence is disturbing. But perhaps the bigger issue for Christian families is Hollywood's ongoing fascination with Sixth Sense-style chat sessions … that seek answers from the dearly departed."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says it's "disappointing simply because it doesn't generate the anxiety or scares that one expects from the genre. [Director Geoffrey] Sax seems to think that showing the snowy, electrically charged static screens of a TV or computer monitor provides us with the expectation that something is about to happen. He must have forgotten that one's first response to static is pretty much universal—annoyance. Although White Noise isn't much of a film it does provide us with an opportunity to consider what the Scriptures tell us about communicating with the dead."
Mainstream critics are writing it off as just a bunch of genre-thriller noise.
More reviews of recent releases
Meet the Fockers: World Magazine calls it "unforgivably crude. One lazy, juvenile, and painfully unfunny sex joke after the next, [the movie] completely wastes new cast members Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand. Those naturally skeptical of this collaboration of notorious Hollywood liberals aren't far off the mark either. What little 'plot' … involves Mr. Stiller's liberal, open-minded Jewish parents loosening up his fiancé e's conservative, WASP-y parents. Don't be fooled by box-office receipts—Meet the Fockers is hollow, pandering drivel."
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events: World Magazine says, "The mood of the film is dark and somber, fitting for a story about the life of recent orphans, but not always a good match for Jim Carrey's over-the-top physical humor. While most adults in the film are not to be trusted, good mostly triumphs over evil in the end. The children are bound together by their parents' love, ready to overcome further 'unfortunate events' that may come if there's a sequel."
The Aviator: World Magazine reports, "It is, in many ways, a very fine movie. Thirty years after his death, [Howard] Hughes is still a larger-than-life figure, and Mr. Scorsese only partially succeeds in getting under his skin. With some fantastic footage of Hughes's aviation achievements and fascinating glimpses of his many tumultuous romantic relationships … one begins to regret the screen time that Mr. Scorsese devotes to Hughes's almost impenetrable inner life. A weak framing device that unconvincingly pins Hughes's compulsions on his mother doesn't help. Despite these flaws, The Aviator is as forceful as anything on screen this year."
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: World Magazine writes, "Aquatic is a film to be enjoyed solely on the basis of its architecture. Every scene is intricately designed, framed, scored, and choreographed. Those who appreciate Mr. Anderson's peculiar sensibility won't be disappointed. But there's no emotional, and, more importantly, no moral, center to the film."
Beyond the Sea:Tom Neven (Plugged In) writes, "Spacey captures [Bobby Darin's] tone, inflection and pacing perfectly. The story is set during a simpler time, and it's refreshing to see a man set out to pursue his wife-to-be with songs and flowers—a great contrast to today's tendency to show people jumping into bed on the first date. Unfortunately, Spacey ruins the effect by putting words into the mouths of his characters that are totally out of sync with the times, pulling audiences back into the rude, crude cinema of the '00s. The film's constant torrent of foul language … ultimately drags the entire story off the stage and out the back entrance."
Ocean's Twelve:Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "Soderbergh has lost the gracefulness that made the first movie work so well. Where Eleven felt entirely effortless, slick, even improvisational at times, Twelve feels like it's trying too hard to be clever, and, consequently, it's not nearly as much fun."
Next week: In Good Company, Elektra, Racing Stripes, Coach Carter, and more, including additional reviews ofMillion Dollar Baby.
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