Eastwood's 'Million Dollar Baby' towers over other year-end movies

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Hollywood often withholds its more ambitious movies until year's end, on the (correct) assumption that Academy Award voters tend to be most enthusiastic about films that are fresh in memory.

Ambitious isn't synonymous with thoughtful or entertaining, though. The current rush of year-end releases has some excellent items to offer, and also a fair amount of junk.

Million Dollar Baby, the new Clint Eastwood drama, stands with the best of the season, and of the year. That said, it's a very hard movie to review, since it hinges on a plot twist I'd rather not give away - even though moviegoers are sure to hear about it one way or another, unless they race off to see it as quickly as they can.

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I can reveal the premise, at least. In what's by far the best performance of his long career, Mr. Eastwood plays the grumpy old owner of a third-rate boxing gym. His only close friends are an aging prizefighter he trained years ago (Morgan Freeman) and - less a friend than an intellectual sparring partner - the priest he enjoys arguing with after the church services he attends every single day.

His life changes when he agrees to train a female fighter (Hilary Swank) even though at 30-something she's already past her prime. She turns out to have phenomenal gifts in the ring, and the movie's first half is so triumphant that you start wondering what the point of the story might be.

Then, in a single slow-motion moment, it turns into a very different kind of movie - closer to "The Sea Inside," another of this week's releases, than to prizefighting pictures of the "Rocky" and "Raging Bull" varieties. While it's a tad cloying at times, Paul Haggis's screenplay (based on the stories of F.X. Toole) follows its internal logic to an unflinching climax that's bold even by Eastwood standards.

I've never been a big fan of Eastwood as an actor, but two factors make this his greatest-ever performance. One is that he's finally allowed himself to get visibly, audibly old on screen; there's never so much as a hint that he could romance Ms. Swank's character the way he did Meryl Streep's and Wanda De Jesus' in recent years.

The other is that the psychologically stiff, closely guarded character he plays is perfect for his psychologically stiff, closely guarded acting style.

It's an ideal match, and Eastwood deserves accolades as both director and star of this powerfully made picture.

Spanglish is such a perfect example of the feel-good movie that a photo of Adam Sandler could appear on Feel-Good 101 textbook covers. He plays a decent, hard-working chef who falls for a new Spanish-speaking maid (Paz Vega) hired by his neurotic handful of a wife, played by Téa Leoni in the movie's best adult performance. The best performance of all comes from Sarah Steele as their daughter, whose all-too-typical adolescent problems never get her down for long.

The movie was written and directed by James L. Brooks, a brilliant behind-the-camera talent in television ("The Simpsons," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show") but a middling feature-film director who has, in my opinion, exactly one first-rate movie to his credit: "Broadcast News," clear back in 1987. "Spanglish" has charming moments, to be sure, but its view of life is so utterly out of touch with reality (why do we hardly ever see the maid doing any work, for example?) that it's ultimately more exasperating than rewarding. I expect it to be a big box-office hit, though. Audiences love feeling good.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, eagerly awaited by millions of kids and more than a few parents, turns out to be as ungainly as its too-long title.

This is a pity, since the basic idea (based on Daniel Handler's books) is refreshingly offbeat. After a brief introduction full of singing flowers and fairy- land effects, the narrator (Lemony himself, voiced by Jude Law) informs us this isn't the world we're about to enter. Instead we're hurtling toward sinister terrain where we'll meet the Baudelaire children, abruptly orphaned when their parents die in a suspicious fire.

A well-meaning guardian (Timothy Spall) puts all three - an inventive girl, a bookish boy, a toddler who hasn't quite learned the trick of talking yet - into the hands of a horror-flick villain (Jim Carrey) whose only interest lies in the fortune that comes along with the kids. Their subsequent adventures involve a ditzy crone (Meryl Streep) and a kindly snake expert (Billy Connolly) who do what they can - not nearly enough - to help the parentless youngsters.

The movie is clearly influenced by such Tim Burton films as "Edward Scissorhands" and "Beetlejuice," sharing their fondness for outlandish incidents and delirious set designs.

But two factors hold it far below Mr. Burton's level: the halting, uncatchy rhythms of Brad Silberling's directing and the heedless overacting of Mr. Carrey, who's almost as grating as Mike Myers in "The Cat in the Hat" last year.

Only one scene played in disguise (the Count posing as a zoologist) reminds us of the real acting talent Carrey showed in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" a few months ago.

I hate to sound per-Snickety, but this lemon of a movie is a sadly unfortunate event.

"Million Dollar Baby," rated PG-13, contains violence. "Spanglish," rated PG-13, contains sexuality. "Lemony Snicket," rated PG, contains cartoonish fright scenes.

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