40 Hours of Television

The class is over, but the discussion continues. Does the media shape reality, or does reality shape the media? Art can imitate life...and life can imitate art. "40 Hours of TV" will explore the media and its impact on us all.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Sorry For the Lack of Posts

If you're still with me, thank you. Life's been kind of hectic and my attention has been focused elsewhere. I just finished fall term at school, and I am also spending a lot of time at Blogcritics, where I am the assistant editor of the politics section. Which doesn't leave a lot of time for writing, I'm afraid.

But I have some time now, and wanted to talk about this new game show on NBC called Deal, or No Deal. Wow. I think I'm hooked. It's a very simple concept. There are 26 cases. Inside each case is a dollar amount ranging from .01 to $1,000,000. No one knows what is in each case. The contestant picks a case at random, and begins the process of elimination to see what his case contains. During various stages of the game, the "banker" will make an offer to the player to buy back their case, based on the odds that the player's case contains the highest amount of money. The banker's offer gets higher as the game progresses. Eventually the player will either take the banker's offer or keep going to see what is in their case. It could be a million dollars. Or only five dollars.

It's been playing all week, it's probably on tonight. Watch and be mesmerized by Howie Mandel's bald head.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Review: "Million Dollar Baby"

Clint Eastwood has proven himself not only as a great actor, but a great director, one of the best directors working today. Some may see the name Clint Eastwood and the image that might come to mind is Dirty Harry Callahan, but there's so much more to Eastwood, and in his films he has displayed an expertise in taking the elements of a familiar genre and turning that genre upside down, turning it into something different, as he did in his Oscar winning 1992 film Unforgiven.

Unforgiven had the elements of a traditional Western, but in Eastwood's hands it became something different than what you would see in a traditional gunslinger drama.

Million Dollar Baby is the story of Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), an aging boxing trainer and manager who runs a small gym with his friend Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman, who also starred with Eastwood in Unforgiven), a former boxer with a blind eye due to a boxing injury. Dunn, as portrayed by Eastwood, is a man with a lot going on below the surface of his gruff exterior. We learn in the film that Dunn has been estranged from his daughter for many years. He writes her every week, but each letter is returned to sender, and Dunn keeps the rejected correspondence in a box. We also learn that Dunn goes to Mass every day, and has been doing so for 23 years. We do not ever learn what Dunn thinks he is atoning for, which adds to the complexity of the character.

Morgan Freeman narrates the story, telling us about the day when Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) arrived at Dunn's gym. She's a waitress from Missouri, and determined to have a better life for herself through boxing. She's inexperienced but determined, spending hours at the gym training by herself. Dupris is impressed by her will and determination. Maggie wants Dunn to train her; he refuses, saying he doesn't "train girls." Freeman gives a fine performance, as usual, and has great chemistry with both Eastwood and Swank (his great performance earned him an Oscar for best supporting actor).

This may sound like any other boxing movie you've seen, but it's not. This isn't a film about boxing, it's a film about a boxer. In the hands of a lesser director, and lesser actors, the story could have dived down into cliche territory, possibly changed to become a sort of female version of Rocky. It's to Eastwood's credit, and screenplay writer Paul Haggis (who based the screenplay on the book Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner by F.X. Toole), that the story stays on a very human level.

Eddie Dupris, who lives in a small room at the gym, knows that Maggie is a talented fighter in need of a good trainer, and tries to get Dunn to train her. He is determined not to get involved, but in the end reluctantly agrees to train her. She's a fast learner, and before long is knocking out opponents in the first round of a fight. The boxing scenes aren't your typical Hollywood boxing fare: the boxing is real, exhausting for the boxers, and injuries can come at any time.
Hilary Swank is simply amazing as Maggie, creating a character who, like Eastwood, has more going on below the surface than we first know. She's barely scraping by as a waitress, sometimes forced to take food from the restaurant that had been tossed into the trash.

Things change for Maggie as she starts winning fights, and after saving up enough of her earning, she buys a home for her family in Missouri. Maggie's mother, Earline (Margo Martindale), isn't very happy with the gift: she's more concerned that her welfare payments will be cut off, and she doesn't approve of her daughter's decision to become a boxer.

Maggie finally gets a shot at a title fight in Las Vegas, against a fighter named Billie "The Blue Bear" (Lucia Rijker, who also served as Swank's boxing trainer). Billie is a figher known to fight dirty, and does so in her bout against Maggie. When it looks like Maggie is going to win, Billie sucker-punches her and she falls, hitting her head against the stool Dunn had placed in her corner at the end of the round. The injury leaves her paralyzed from the neck down.

It's at ths point the story takes a major turn, and although the ending might already be known by now, I will not spoil it here. The aftermath of the accident is especially emotional for Frankie Dunn, who takes on the role as a surrogate father to Maggie, spending all of his free time with her in the hospital. Maggie's family comes in from Missouri (but not before they'd had the chance to play tourist) and they want to make sure Maggie's money goes to them should anything happen to her. Her family isn't particularly concerned over her injury, and Maggie furiously sends them out of the room.

Eastwood handles the film's emotional conclusion in a way that does not pull it down into a fake sentimentality, which again would have been the case with a lesser director. It's a powerfully emotional conclusion, and in Eastwood's hands, a genuinely emotionally conclusion.
Million Dollar Baby is certainly one of Eastwood's best films, up there with Unforgiven and the powerful Mystic River. He's a director and actor of great talent. Highly recommended.
**** out of ****

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Review: "Dead Man"

Jim Jarmusch, the director of the 1996 film Dead Man is an indie director who definitely marches to the beat of his own drummer, creating films that can be both entertaining and infuriatingly inaccessible, as well as outright dull and plodding. Dead Man falls into all of those categories.

Shot in striking black and white by Jarmusch's longtime cinematographer Robby Muller, Dead Man is a sort of neo-Western, set sometime in the late 19th century. Johnny Depp is William Blake (not that William Blake...or is he?), an accountant on a train ride to the town of Machine, where he has a job waiting for him at the Dickinson steel mill. And it's a long train ride. Really, really long. Jarmusch spends at least the first ten minutes of the film showing us Blake's long, long, journey to Machine.

I suppose it's meant to convey Blake's inner emotion, but in reality it just went on way too long. We get shots of the train speeding through different landscapes, starting with forests and ending in a bleak desert. We get shots of Blake in the train. Cut back to shot of train speeding to its destination. Back to Blake inside train. With different people in the car each time, getting progressively scruffier. And so on, until we finally reach the end of the line and the town of Machine. Before reaching the town, the train's fireman (Crispin Glover) warns Blake that Machine is actually Hell.

As Blake walks through the town on his way to Dickinson Metal Works, it does appear hellish, a bleak town with bleak residents and various bits of bones in piles.

Once at Dickinson Metal Works, Blake learns that his job has been filled by another man. Blake demands to see the owner, John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum). Blake is granted a meeting, which turns out to be brief with a raving Dickinson inexplicably demanding that Blake leave his office (at gunpoint). He does, and with his last few dollars (he had spent all of his savings to get to Machine) buys a bottle of booze at the town's saloon. While at the saloon a woman selling paper flowers (Mili Avital) is tossed out of the saloon into the muddy street. Blake helps her out of the mud and she asks him to walk her to her home. Blake ends up spending the night with her, but in the morning her fiance, Charles Ludlow Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne) discovers her in bed with Blake. He shoots her; Blake shoots Dickinson and kills him, while taking a shot himself. The fiance is John Dickinson's son. Blake escapes the room and steals a horse.

Wounded, he passes out, and when he awakens, he's been tended to by an Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer) who is convinced that Blake is actually the spirit of the poet William Blake -- in other words, Blake has died. Nobody is determined to get Blake back to the spirit world where he belongs.

Neil Young provides the music for the film, and his guitar playing suits the mood of the film.

The rest of the film takes us on the long journey to Blake's ultimate destination. Jarmusch is a director not very concerned with pacing. It's all so dull, yet it's meant to be meaningful or somehow insightful, a metaphor for...whatever. What is it about indie filmmakers and how the boring, overlong moments in their films are supposed to actually be something more than what they are? When we watch a "mainstream" movie that plods along, we'd call it what it is: horribly boring. The fans of Jarmusch will possibly content that I do not "get" it, but I do. Blake is on a metaphysical journey. It's all meant to be taken as allegory. Sure. But it's still dull.

On his tail are a trio of bounty hunters, including one who talks way too much (Michael Wincott) and sleeps with a teddy bear (not yet invented in the time the film takes place, but hey, we'll let it slip, since this is an indie film) and one who doesn't speak much at all (Lance Henricksen) but turns out to be a cannibal. That's a nice indie film touch. There are other strange characters in the film, including Iggy Pop in drag as someone who can cook up a mean pan of beans.

Eventually Nobody and Blake reach the village of Mikah, and Nobody puts Blake in a canoe and sets him off on his journey to the spirit world.

Dead Man comes in at 121 minutes, which is at least 30 minutes too long. (I'd say 120 minutes too long, but that would be mean-spirited). Having seen other Jarmusch films, I knew what I was in for when I watched Dead Man. And like the other Jarmusch films I've seen, I really didn't like Dead Man. I just couldn't connect with any of the characters on screen. Johnny Depp gives a great performance as Blake, of course, and the supporting actors are also very good, especially Gary Farmer as Nobody. The film suffers from slow pacing and a boring story. If you're a Jarmusch fan, I'm sure you'll love Dead Man.
** out of ****