Maybe I'm becoming a curmudgeon in my old age, but the words "Academy Award" just don't mean much to me anymore. Not only is the whole concept of giving out awards for creativity rather silly, I look back on the Best Picture Oscar winners of the past few years, and I just don't know -- is anyone going to remember these movies ten years from now? Or even ten months? Think 'Gladiator,' 'Chicago,' 'A Beautiful Mind' or -- heaven help us -- 'Crash,' and it is hard to imagine any of these films having a legacy that extends beyond the "Award Winners!" rack at Blockbuster.
So it was with much trepidation that I came to the game late with 'Million Dollar Baby.' After all the hosannas and its four Academy Awards -- including Best Picture, Best Actress and Supporting Actor nods for Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, and Best Director for Clint Eastwood -- I couldn't help but fear that, even if the acclaim for the film might not be unwarranted, it would still become yet example of a perfectly fine film transformed into a disappointment thanks to being overhyped. Turns out my fears were far from confirmed, but not entirely unfounded, either.
"I don't train girls," says Frankie Dunn (Eastwood). And this guy means it. He's the very definition of "grizzled" -- an aging boxing coach whose boxers are losing as many fights as his gym is losing money. But then in walks a spirited, dirt poor young hopeful named Maggie (Swank), whose desperation is matched only by her resilient, and something inside Frankie motivates him to take her on. With the help of gym caretaker Scrap (Freeman), soon Dunn and Maggie are on their way to being the most unlikely underdog success story in the ring. But then a third act knock-out propels their destiny into a direction neither ever saw coming.
'Million Dollar Baby' is a very fine film indeed. Eastwood's combined seventy-odd years in front of and behind the camera shows -- every moment of his twenty-fifth film as a director is perfectly modulated. No shot is wasted, no plot point unmotivated, and not a single line of dialogue is extraneous. He also wrings career-best performances out of Swank and Freeman (who also narrates), which is saying a great deal for two actors who have been terrific in so many other films (and their two Oscars were certainly as deserved as any that year). Eastwood is also aided by no-frills yet hauntingly evocative photography by Tom Stern, sharp editing by Joel Cox, and his own appropriately unobtrusive score (with additional songs by Eastwood's son, Kyle).
Ironically, then, what kept the movie shy of true greatness for me was also Eastwood -- both his character and his performance. Though in retrospect the film's surprise third act seems almost predestined (and I won't ruin it for you if you haven't seen the film), it left me feeling that 'Million Dollar Baby' became two films in one -- foremost a spiritual journey for Frankie, which relegates Maggie's story to the sidelines. Quite frankly, I found her far more interesting than him, which wasn't helped by a rote performance from Eastwood. He can do a character like this in his sleep, while Swank's energy and ferociousness often blew him off the screen. So by the film's climax, their separate but intertwined tragic journey's left me feeling devastated for her, and uncaring for him. Weird.
But despite my reservations, 'Million Dollar Baby' is well worth seeing. It is also, despite what you may have heard, not a "message movie." It's surprise left hook does tackle a topical issue, but ultimately it is a tale of redemption through sacrifice, that uses the boxing ring as a metaphor for our human quest for respect and validation. That makes it ultimately a humane and decent film, despite the bloody and violent sport at its center. I may not be quite as sold on 'Baby' as some critics, and the Academy -- and I absolutely abhor boxing -- but I would never dissuade anyone from seeing it.
I must admit, 'Million Dollar Baby' seems like an odd choice as one of Warner's inaugural three HD-DVD titles. It is a visually direct film, bathed in shadows and devoid of any visual gimmicks. No special effects, no explosions, no CGI. It also has an intentionally muted color scheme, and occasionally underlit, grainy sequences. So why did Warner pick 'Baby' to help kick off HD-DVD? Got me, but this transfer actually left me a bit more impressed than I expected.
Encoded in 1080p, 'Million Dollar Baby' is certainly a true test in how much detail a given video format can deliver. Because the film's director of photography Tom Stern uses shadows so extensively, there are often very minute details detectable in the corners of every frame, just ready to fall off into darkness. Whether the barely-lit texture of a gym's back wall or a silhouetted boxer nearly as transparent as a ghost, this HD transfer is exceptional in its shadow delineation. It has smooth, detailed and often three-dimensional appearance throughout. PRedictably, the most brightly lit scenes -- primarily the competitive boxing sequences -- shine the most, with a film-like look that is striking because I didn't expect it. Sure, 'Baby' is not really a movie made to be demo material, but in terms of fine gradations of color, black level and contrast, there are shots here that are as good as anything I've seen yet on HD-DVD.
Presented in Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround, 'Million Dollar Baby' sounds fine, but it really isn't an improvement over the previous DVD. Despite the increased fidelity offered by the Dolby Digital-Plus format's higher bitrate, the film's soundtrack is just subdued to register much of the difference.
Aside from slightly improved fine tonalities to the dialogue and perhaps a warmer presence to Eastwood's acoustic-based score, I detected no difference between the HD-DVD and standard DVD releases. Surround use is pretty spare, except for some atmospheric effects during the boxing crowd scenes. Otherwise, the mix is almost entirely front-directed. Which suits the film just fine, but I wouldn't suggest pulling 'Million Dollar Baby' out when you want to impress your friends with your new HD-DVD setup.
A note: as has been widely reported this past week, Warner's initial three HD-DVD titles have all been encoded at an abnormally low volume level. Some reviewers have noted that by switching the "Dialogue Enhancement" feature on your HD-DVD player boosted the quality of the soundtrack. However, I am not a fan of artificially enhancing a soundtrack via processing as it can alter the original intent of the mix. While a bit annoying, I found just raising the volume level appropriately did the trick simply enough. Just make sure you lower your speaker volume after playing one of the initial Warner HD-DVD titles, or the next disc you put in could seriously damage your equipment or worse, you're eardrums.
Another direct port of the extra features from the standard DVD release, 'Million Dollar Baby' boasts a fairly paltry set of supplements regardless of format. Given that Clint Eastwood is not fond of audio commentaries, none is included here. He also doesn't seem particularly fond of doing interviews exclusively for DVDs, as most of his discs only include material culled from other sources. So it goes here, with one TV interview special, plus two short new featurettes.
First up is the 24-minute TV special "James Lipton Takes on Three," which was recorded right after the film won its four Academy Awards. If Lipton totally gives me the creeps, at least he asks fairly perceptive questions of guests Eastwood, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman. Swank and Freeman in particular are insightful, with Eastwood playing the more "I just am what I am" role. A little dry, but worth a watch.
The remaining two extras both run about 12 minutes. "Born to Fight" features on-set EPK interviews with Swank and her boxing coach Lucia Rijker, who discuss not only Swank's often rigorous training regime, but the appeal of the sport of boxing. Personally, I just don't get it (it's stupid and barbaric, if you ask me) but I admire Swank's commitment to really getting inside her character, not just go through the physical motions. "Producers Round 15" is simply a three-person interview, with producers Albert S. Ruddy, Tom Rosenberg and future Oscar winner Paul Haggis. Informative if dry, the gestation of 'Baby' is still fascinating enough to to make this worth watching.
Now, here's a frustrating caveat. Though all these extras were shot in 16x9, they are presented here in 480i 4x3 video only, windowboxed on all four sides. Why none of this material encoded in true 16x9 remains a mystery.
Rounding out the extras is the film's original theatrical trailer, which is presented in full 16x9 and encoded at 1080p. Oddly, the volume on the trailer is way mismatched with the main feature and other supplements, recorded at way too loud a volume. Not sure what the heck those folks at Warner were on when they mastered with this disc, but hope they lay off the sauce for their next batch of releases.
(Additional note: The standard DVD release came in a special three-disc set which featured all of the extras here spread over two discs, with a bonus extra CD with the film's soundtrack. This HD-DVD release does not include the CD, nor is an isolated score present as a supplemental feature.)
'Million Dollar Baby' is a very good film - heartfelt, powerful and thought-provoking. It is worth seeing for the performances alone, and keep clear of that knockout third act -- it is a stunner. As one of Warner's three initial HD-DVD releases, it is a bit of a curious choice, as it really doesn't boast any video or audio razzle-dazzle. But it does deliver an exceptional picture for a film of its type, though the audio and supplements are pretty standard issue. I don't think this is really worth an upgrade over the standard DVD release of the film, though if you don't already own 'Million Dollar Baby,' it is well worth picking up.