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Thursday, Jan. 27, 2005 03:36 am

movie review

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Million Dollar Baby

It's Baby, by a knockout!

Since its quiet release in four cities on Dec. 17, Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby has been slowly but surely generating praise, garnering nearly unanimous rave reviews. Rarely does a film live up to its advance hype, but Baby is a notable exception, delivering an emotionally powerful tale told with subtlety and grace.

More than one critic has already embraced the film as a classic, and, for once, that isn’t an overstatement. Eastwood, in adapting the short story by F.X. Toole from a screenplay by Paul Haggis, has taken a well-worn genre and injected it with something vital.

More than a boxing film, Baby is a unconventional tale of love and redemption. Eastwood stars (in addition to directing, he also produced and scored the film) as Frankie Dunn, a man who has devoted his life to boxing, earning the reputation as a top-notch trainer and cut man. Though his expertise about what happens in the ring is unquestioned, his reluctance to push fighters up through the ranks makes him a horrible manager. Having just lost a prime fighter to a big-time promoter, Dunn is ready to simply spend the rest of his days quietly running the gym he owns with Scrap (Morgan Freeman), a former fighter. However, the sight of determined fighter Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), plus Scrap’s prodding, compels Dunn to offer his services against his better judgment.

Baby breaks from the pack of boxing movies by fully developing the backstories of the three principals, giving us tattered, flawed, and genuine human beings. This is a film about life and how we should fight the trials we encounter along the way. And though these characters each contribute a breath of fresh air to the film, what truly elevates Baby is the deeply affecting twist it contains. What happens to Dunn and his protégée comes out of left field, and the film becomes something much more than a superior boxing movie: a testament to life and love.

Freeman gives his usual rock-solid performance, using his naturalistic style to great effect in bringing his battered character to life. Swank simply bristles with energy and breaks your heart with her determination and enthusiasm. However, it’s Eastwood who proves the biggest surprise here, portraying a man haunted by his past but capable of finding the courage to allow someone into his life again.

Also in theaters this week. . .

Alone in the Dark [R] Investigating the mysterious death of a friend leads paranormal detective Edward Carnby to “Shadow Island” where the natives worship demons that plan to take over the world. ShowPlace West

Assault on Precinct 13 [R] Officer Jake Roenick cobbles together a force made up cops and criminals to save themselves from a mob looking to looking to kill mobster Marion Bishop. Parkway Pointe, ShowPlace East

Coach Carter [PG-13] Samuel L. Jackson stars as a high-school basketball coach in Richmond, Calif., who pushes his players to excel in the classroom. ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East

Elektra [PG-13] Elektra is dispatched to kill a widower, but changes her mind. Jennifer Garner stars as the super-heroine with the power to see in the future. ShowPlace West

Finding Neverland [PG] A fictionalized story about author J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), author of Peter Pan. Parkway Pointe

Goodbye Lenin [R] Set in the former Democratic Republic of Germany, Alex’s devoted socialist mother falls into a coma just before the government collapses. Because of her weak heart, Alex and his friends conspire to protect her learning that she now lives in a capitalist, united Germany. Brookens Auditorium (Brookens Library, UIS) Admission free.

In Good Company [PG-13] Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) is a middle-aged exec who gets a youthful boss (Topher Grace). Complicating matters: Foreman’s daughter (Scarlett Johansson) is dating the boss. ShowPlace West

Hide and Seek [R] After her mother commits suicide, the daughter of David Callaway finds solace, then terror, in an imaginary friend. ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East

Hotel Rwanda [PG-13] Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) is a hotel manager who hides more than a thousand Tutsi refugees during the Rwandan genocide. Parkway Pointe

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events [PG] Three kids are sent to live with a distant relative (Jim Carrey). Trouble is, he’s a greedy guy intent on getting their family’s fortune. ShowPlace West

The Phantom of the Opera [PG-13] Andrew Lloyd Webber’s take on the story of a disfigured musical genius who hides in the Paris Opera House. Parkway Pointe

Racing Stripes [PG] Stripes, an abandoned zebra, grows up thinking he’s a racehorse. Frankie Muniz is the voice of Stripes. Parkway Pointe, ShowPlace East

Sideways [R] A failed writer/divorcé and his best friend, a faded actor, take a weeklong trip through California wine country, where they explore their failures and drink wine. Parkway Pointe

White Noise [PG-13] A man (Michael Keaton) is contacted from beyond the grave by his murdered wife. ShowPlace West

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