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Million Dollar Baby Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 November 2006

ImageWhen one sees a movie after it has cleaned up at the Academy Awards, one obviously has certain expectations. I had heard nothing but the highest of praise for Clint Eastwood's twenty-fifth film as a director, the female boxing drama based on a Paul Haggis screenplay of an F.X. Toole story called “Rope Burns.” “Million Dollar Baby” is a beautifully simple story of a girl who comes of age a little later in life than most and a hardened man who has been struggling with the emotional loss (not the death of) his own daughter. I went in expecting a knock-down, drag-out boxing movie in the vein of “Rocky,” but was surprised to find that, although everything in this movie is about boxing, the boxing itself plays second fiddle to the real heart of the story.

Released as one of the first HD DVD titles earlier this year at a time when quality titles were few and far between for the new format, “Million Dollar Baby” is one of the more compelling films to get the high-def treatment. I had seen the film on DVD and the transfer was excellent but fairly dark so I was really looking forward to seeing if the added resolution would exponentially improve the viewing experience of this excellent film in a home theater environment.

Academy Award winner Hilary Swank plays Maggie, a small-town girl from rural and very poor Mississippi who comes out to the big city of Los Angeles, not to become a movie star, but rather to follow a different dream. In her early thirties with a dead-end job as a waitress at a small diner, Maggie has decided she wants to be a boxer. She seeks out former trainer turned gym owner Frankie Dunn, played by director Eastwood. The first struggle for Maggie is to convince this hardened boxing world veteran that she is a worthy candidate for training. “I Don’t Train Girls!” says a crotchety old Dunn, but Maggie takes it upon herself to show up at the gym in every spare moment of her day and work the punching bag .Her flat-footed, no-technique punching drives Dunn so crazy he cant stand to look at it. After some helpful hints from one of the other gym-goers, Maggie begins to show some promise and even Dunn starts to see it. Dunn takes Maggie on an emotional ride up the ranks of female boxing, starting in the lowest level fights, set in what looks like it might be a community rec center with a few folding chairs and a handful of local yokels. There are a few unbelievable scenarios that you have to sort of “go with” and just accept, such as Maggie’s fast rise to fame where she goes quickly from hardly being able to punch the punching bag, to knocking women out in the first moments of her fights, often with one-punch seconds. As I was watching her really start to take form and mow through opponents, it seemed as if Eastwood rushed her progression as a fighter just a little too much. I now know after seeing the film that the boxing was just a vehicle to get to the emotional heart of the film, but as a boxing fan, I would have liked to have seen a little more drama and a slower build on her way to the top of the female boxing world. She got way too good, way too fast, but in the end, that is all beside the point.

Morgan Freeman is perfectly cast as the former fighter turned gym jack-of-all-trades Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris. His soulful narration that guides us through the film lends such an air of credibility to the film that it made it easier for the Academy Award voting body to foist such high accolades on the film. Just hearing his voice makes you feel like you are watching a special movie.

The look of “Million Dollar Baby” is gritty and dark at times, with many of the scenes set in the training gym of Frankie Dunn. The added resolution of the HD DVD format is much more engaging as compared to the DVD release. An A/B test between the two formats reveals just what you might expect. White and gray walls make up the space and there are no flashy colors to be seen anywhere. However, the HD DVD format gives an added sense of three dimensionality to every scene. The brightest colors on screen are the subtle reds of a pair of boxing gloves or a speed punching bag. The camera work gives the film a semi-retro feeling that is a little bit “Rocky” with some “Raging Bull” thrown in. When Dunn comes home to his dimly lit house, only to find the letters that he has been writing to his daughter returned every time under his doorstep, this is where the limits of the DVD format really showed their ugly head. As he puts the letters away, perfectly filed in shoeboxes in his bedroom closet, you could barely see details and the pained look on Dunn’s face on the DVD format but the HD DVD release shows at least fifty percent more detail, from the room to the wrinkles on the bed sheet to the hardened lines in Dunn’s face.

The sound of the film is above average, with very well-done Foley work during the boxing scenes; however this is one of the first Warner Bros. HD DVD discs; apparently these discs were mastered at a lower dB level. You will therefore need to crank up the sound more than average on this disc, so just remember that when you are done watching it. I forgot a few times and went back to my satellite receiver only to be jolted by how loud the sound was.

Just for kicks, I went back and watched some of the fight scenes in “Rocky.” I realized that the “Rocky” series seemingly has one or two different punch sounds, which are basically repeated for every single punch, whether it’s a glancing blow or an uppercut straight to the jaw. In “Million Dollar Baby,” the sound design is so much more evolved and well-done that you aren’t distracted by phony sounding over the top punching sound effects. The sound of Dunn snapping Maggie’s broken nose back into place is bone-chilling and the surround sound mix as the fighters move around the ring is tastefully done.

What surprised me about “Million Dollar Baby” the most was that, although it is set in the world of boxing, it’s really not a boxing movie. The real fight rages inside the hearts and minds of Maggie and Frankie as they are forced to deal with one of the toughest decisions that someone will ever have to make in life.

I was a little disappointed to find that the HD DVD release features essentially the same bonus footage included on the bonus disc in the two-disc DVD version including several featurettes, including a roundtable interview session hosted by James Lipton. Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman humbly discuss the subtle nuances of the film that have made it resonate with so many people and the feeling of the interview is, not surprisingly, very similar to an episode of the show “Inside the Actor’s Studio” Lipton hosts. A making-of documentary lets us see behind the scenes action in a piece called “Producers Round 15” and we get to look into the real world of competitive women’s boxing in “Born to Fight,” a documentary that examines the parallels between “Million Dollar Baby” and the life of boxer Lucia Rijker.

If you are looking for this to be the female version of “Rocky,” you are barking up the wrong tree. “Million Dollar Baby” is a film that is so small and tightly focused that it could be done on a stage with a few sets and a lot of heart. Eastwood milks brilliantly subtle performances out of every actor and this is why the film has resonated so strongly with the public. The prior year the epic film “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” took home all of the statues at the Academy Awards and this year, a little underdog by the name of “Million Dollar Baby,” a film that couldn’t have been smaller in scale that that Middle Earth masterpiece, took home the Best Picture award. Even if you have the DVD, this HD DVD version is something you should pick up to see how filmmaking can be done incredibly well on a small scale.

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