Reel Time

Beating Up Baby

Clint Eastwood, in the line of fire; plus, Hide and Seek.

Being Julian: Yesterday I asked for corrections, and here’s a big one. Although I’m not a cabaret critic and the entry below was meant to be about Martha Plimpton, Rhonda Lieberman feels, with some justification, that I slighted Plimpton’s partner, Julian Fleisher: “As a longtime fan of Fleisher’s,” she writes, “I think you should know that he’s been crafting this act (and its distinctive song stylings and wit) since the mid-’90s. Martha—as even she had the good grace to say from the stage—just recently came along and stepped into what was his show.” My apologies.

Beating Up Baby:Now that Million Dollar Baby has won a slew of Oscar nominations and Clint Eastwood is closing in on Martin Scorsese as the favorite for the best director prize, it’s worth touching on the ticklish issue of the movie’s ending. Critics are in a no-win position here: We can’t really grapple with the film without revealing its most brutal plot turn, but to “spoil” the ending would be to incur the wrath of millions.

So stop here if you haven’t seen the movie. Read on if you have, or you don’t care to, or you haven’t and want to know what’s in store for you.

Disabled organizations around the country—among them Chicago’s Not Dead Yet—have begun a campaign against Million Dollar Baby. In the film, the quadriplegic Maggie compares herself to an old, sick dog that needs to be taken out to the woods and shot, and the movie endorses that view. The weirdly belligerent, foul-mouthed priest argues (unconvincingly) that euthanasia is a sin, but the film’s true priest—its spiritual conscience, Eddie (Morgan Freeman)—gives Eastwood’s Frankie his blessing to finish her off.

You could argue that Million Dollar Baby is not offering Maggie’s fate as a prescription: It’s one particular young woman in one particular place in one particular story—which some critics have maintained is an allegory with boxing as its frame. I’m a literal-minded guy, though, and have a hard time getting past the wrong and crudely manipulative notes on the surface. Isn’t it odd that this million-dollar baby (a boxing cover girl, a celebrity, a near-world champion) is in a hospital room with no flowers or cards, no hovering fans, no doctors or counselors committed to helping her with her transition? Her trailer-trash family is cartoonishly venal: They don’t even pretend to offer sympathy. (Couldn’t just one of her relatives have been genuinely distraught?) Last year, Christopher Reeve went out like a champ, but Eastwood’s movie is so threadbare, underpopulated, and shameless that there really is nothing for the saintly martyred Maggie (also, supposedly, a celebrity) to live for. She took on the world with shining eyes and was broken without mercy.

I don’t buy the view of the disabled community that the notoriously vindictive Eastwood is getting revenge for having been sued under the Americans With Disabilities Act over access to a hotel he owns in Carmel, Calif.—although Michael Miner in the Chicago Reader notes that Eastwood later testified before Congress for a change in the law that many activists felt would gut it. Eastwood didn’t write the screenplay (Paul Haggis did) or the stories it was based on. This isn’t about revenge; it’s about insensitivity and opportunism, as well as an aesthetic that lends itself to fatalism—a man is what he is, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, etc.

I loved The Sea Inside for Javier Bardem’s performance, but I’m also troubled by its view that euthanasia should be sanctioned by the government. It’s possible that an individual has a moral right to take his or her own life, but the legal hurdles should be left in place. The last thing we should want is for a disabled or terminally ill person to feel pressure to ease the emotional or financial burden on family members—or for family members to apply that pressure. And as Not Dead Yet wants you to know … well, the name says it all. … 12:23 p.m. PT

Thursday, Jan. 27, 2004

In Hide and Seek (20th Century Fox), Dakota Fanning plays Emily, a little girl who views her mom (Amy Irving) in a blood-filled bathtub with her wrists slit; shortly thereafter, she acquires an “imaginary friend” named Charlie. As Charlie grows more and more obscene and violent, the questions are suddenly urgent: Is Charlie in her head—and has the affectless, grief-stricken girl become a schizoid sociopath? Or is Charlie a real—and ferociously angry—poltergeist? Or is Charlie human—a skulking neighbor, a friend, or a Charles Manson-like stranger? I never knew—and neither did Emily’s psychologist father (Robert De Niro), who moves her to the country to start over but finds the past howling at him from every cranny of the isolated old house.

The movie is OK for a January horror picture, but given the premise and the cast—which includes Famke Janssen, Elisabeth Shue, Dylan Baker, and Melissa Leo—it should wring you out emotionally as it’s scaring you witless. The plodding director, John Polson, reliably telegraphs the big boos, and the next time I see an actor gingerly open a cupboard and get knocked back by an overamplified screeching cat, I’m walking. Hide and Seek cheats a bit, but it’s at least consistently creepy, full of gray light; cawing crows; bare, twisty branches through the windows; and the occasional view from behind the slats in the door of the little girl’s closet. Charlie is apparently jealous of Emily’s dolls, and their savaged faces are the movie’s most disturbing images.

De Niro underplays and does good work, and he’s judicious enough to pull the audience through some potentially ludicrous patches without convulsing. But the costume designer shouldn’t have given Shue—as De Niro’s potential girlfriend—so many cleavage-baring outfits: She’s eye candy, but those boobs wreck the mood. And it’s too bad that Fanning—with her gloomy affect and huge, shocked-open eyes—looks too much like Christina Ricci’s Wednesday to usher us completely into her tortured inner world. I kept waiting for Thing to pop up and give her dad the finger.

Martha’s cabaret: Sometimes it’s great when there’s a screw-up in one of my reviews, because then I get e-mails from people who use the occasion to enlighten me in other ways. Once in a while, I even hear from celebrities, like the writer/blogger Virginia Postrel or the great Harry Shearer, who told me, re: my Johnny Carson appreciation, that Steve Allen had essentially invented Carnac the Magnificent and that most of Carson’s shticks were borrowed. When I misidentified Josie Maran in The Aviator, I got a lovely note from the actress Martha Plimpton, and used the correction to bemoan her absence from movies these days.

Well, it turns out she has a budding career as a singer—and who would have thought that this punky misfit actress would turn out to be a fabulous cabaret diva? Last night, I caught her at Joe’s Pub in New York’s Public Theater with Julian Fleisher in a show called Save It for the Stage. (It was one night only, but they’ll pop up again.) Plimpton and Fleisher compare themselves to “Steve and Eydie, Sonny and Cher, Bonnie and Clyde, and Leopold and Loeb,” which should give you some idea of the (unrehearsed) onstage banter. But if the act borders on camp, Plimpton sings with her whole heart: She has a chesty but soaring voice, and with her short blond hair and slinky body she looks great when she’s contorting herself in front of a microphone.

Her rendition of “Neverland” was too earnestly plaintive, but everything else was a joy: the opening medley of “Movin’ On Up” (from The Jeffersons) and “Nine to Five; “Little Red Corvette”—’70s/early ‘80s songs revitalized by her stylings and the witty band. Plimpton will bring down the house with a number, then break character and shrug and squeal as if to say, “Was that me? Did I just pull that off?” It’s so exhilarating when you discover that an actor whom you loved (and I’ve followed Plimpton since The River Rat in 1984) has pipes.

So: Anyone else out there got a correction? … 2:06 p.m. PT

Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2004

Everyone’s jawing about the omission of both The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 from the list of Oscar-nominated films, proving that the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have collectively opted to steer clear of controversy this year. This will likely take some of the steam out of the charge that Hollywood is run by godless liberal Jews, although I expect a handful of godful unliberal Christians (among them that brave defender of Christmas, Bill O’Reilly) to get some mileage out of the snub. For my part, I’d have liked to see Moore’s “I told you so” speech, but there’s always the danger he’d alienate far more people than he’d convert.

As longtime readers are probably sick of hearing, I think the Oscars are worthless as a measure of artistic merit but fascinating as a measure of how establishment Hollywood hopes to present itself to the world. As in most elections, the best candidates are rarely nominated, let alone win, but the campaigns (overt and whispering) have become juicier than the ceremonies themselves. What bugs me is that even people I respect will come out of a movie and say, “That was a great performance! Do you think it will win an Oscar?” If it’s a great performance, who cares if it wins an Oscar (apart, of course, from the actor whose fees will go up)? Are we all so obsessed with competition (Oscars, the widespread attention to box-office performances, etc.) that we need our opinions endorsed by the (fickle, thoughtless) majority? Give out your own private awards this year, and watch the Oscars for the spectacle of exhibitionists walking the tightrope between humility and grandiosity.

The happy side of all this is that it throws the national spotlight on movies for a month or two—good for me. With gleeful opportunism and shameless hypocrisy, I welcome the chance to play political pundit (or, in some cases, horse-racing commentator) on radio, television, and in this precious space.

My biggest disappointment, of course, is that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was shut out of the major categories, with the exception of Kate Winslet (no chance) and Charlie Kaufman (a good shot). I didn’t expect a nod for Jim Carrey or director Michel Gondry, but given the movie’s fluid weave I’d love to have seen some recognition for the editor, Valdís Óskarsdóttir, and the cinematographer, Ellen Kuras.

It was a pleasant surprise to see Alan Alda recognized for The Aviator—a terrific job in a part that was brilliantly written by John Logan. Alda has always been an underrated actor, although it’s party his fault: He used his success from M*A*S*H in the ‘80s to write and direct a bunch of films showing off his insufferable liberal-humanist side. Like many light comic actors, he can be more haunting playing conflicted men or outright sleazeballs.

One interesting contest will be between Annette Bening and Hilary Swank in a rematch from 1999. Swank deserved her Oscar for her stunning work in Boys Don’t Cry, although the odds at the time favored the very pregnant Bening. My guess is that academy members wanted to protect the fetus from getting bounced around by the insane hugs and kisses of the repulsive Roberto Benigni. In any case, Bening gives a beautifully shaded performance in Being Julia of an aging diva, and deserves every award there is (including my own, the David).

The list of omissions for best actor could fill its own, separate competitive category. I was happy to see Clint Eastwood nominated for Million Dollar Baby; his soulful gravitas as God’s Lonelist Man is the best thing about that bizarrely overrated movie. Don Cheadle is marvelous, of course. But it’s a pity about the lack of recognition for Javier Bardem, Kevin Bacon, Paul Giamatti, Jim Carrey, and, maybe most of all, Jeff Bridges as an unsavory children’s book writer in The Door in the Floor. Jamie Foxx will win, of course, for his bravura (and gratifyingly unsentimental) performance in Ray, but it’s too bad that the academy overlooked Regina King and Aunjanue Ellis from the same film.

Johnny Depp is fine in Finding Neverland—drying out (along with Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, and the kids) what could have been painfully mawkish two hours. But what of the affection for the picture? It obviously represents old-school Hollywood’s stubborn belief in the importance of fatal-disease movies that celebrate the life-affirming wonders of the human imagination. But as author/illustrator Robert Weinstock (of the delightful new kids’ book Gordimer Byrd’s Reminder) put it recently, “Why do movies about the imagination always have to be so unimaginative?” … 10:49 a.m.