I didn't plan for this day to be so full of sad, sad films, it just turned out that way. I promise, there's still some levity coming up, hopefully tomorrow.
088. In America (Directed by Jim Sheridan, 2002): "Don't "little girl" me," the young girl says, staring into her father's eyes, "I've been carrying this family on my back for over a year." The father (the wonderful Paddy Considine) is shocked. He seems to think he and his wife have been coping well since the death of their son, never realizing the daughter has been taking the brunt of it, trying to maintain a happy face and take care of her younger sister while her parents trudge along, grief-stricken. "He was my brother too," she says. It's that kind of scene that separates In America from the rest of the pack, and elevates it above what could have simply been a tear-jerking nostalgia flick. That kind of emotional honesty is rare, and the performance by Sarah Bolger is sublime.
It's the story of an Irish family moving to New York City. They move into what is, ostensibly, a slum. But, they're happy, because it's New York City and it's so alive. The father struggles along, trying to make a go as an actor while taking odd jobs in the interim, the mother gets pregnant, the girls befriend an ailing artist who lives in the building, but the deceased brother is the elephant in the room. A game of hide-and-seek becomes a miserable experience when the father finds himself looking for his son. It's not an easy watch, it's extremely emotionally draining. But, ultimately, it's a rewarding one.
087. The Proposition (Directed by John Hillcoat, 2005): The idea of an Australian Western conjures the images of Crocodile Dundee riding on the back of a kangaroo, throwing boomerangs. In actuality, this is one of the bleakest, harshest films I've ever seen. Guy Pearce is Charlie Burns, middle brother of the notorious Burns Gang. He is caught at the hands of Captain Stanley (The remarkably under-appreciated Ray Winstone), who offers him the titular proposition. Either Charlie can rot in his prison, and watch his youngest brother Mikey be executed by the state, or he can be freed on the condition that he bring his older brother Arthur to justice. Justice, in the Australian outback, being a synonym for death. Ultimately, he goes for the second option, and proceeds, alone, to track down Arthur, memorably brought to life by Danny Huston. Mikey, simple by nature, is seen as the most innocent brother, Arthur, by contrast, is evil and unhinged. When he finally finds Arthur, at first we're charmed by him, his rag-tag family he's created for himself, his propensity for poetry, but, eventually, we're let in on the secret: Arthur is vicious, brutal, and completely without remorse. Meanwhile, Stanley is pressure from the locals to punish Mikey, and has to stand firm in the face of criticism, unable to let the townfolk, including his wife, in on his deal. If they'd known he'd let Charlie out, no matter the circumstances, they'd be calling for his own head.
As memorable as all the performances are, the real star of The Proposition is the locale. The Australian Outback, often celebrated and shown as a sort-of last bastion of unspoiled beauty, has never looked more unforgiving as it does here. Hot, desolate, weather-beaten, as vicious as the men who trample upon it.
I have yet to see Hillcoat's The Road, but I can't help he adapted the wrong Cormac McCarthy novel. If there's anyone who is born to adapt Blood Meridian, it's Hillcoat, as The Proposition evokes McCarthy's tale of murderous horsemen along the Mexican border, more than any cinematic Western before or since.
086. Million Dollar Baby (Directed by Clint Eastwood, 2004): In what was thought to be Clint Eastwood's swan song on a great acting career, Eastwood played the role of cranky boxing trainer Frankie Dunn who trains Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). At first, he's reluctant to take her on: "I don't train girls", he snarls at her. But, after being abandoned by his protege, he finally begins to admire Maggie's courage and takes her on. Their relationship: two shattered souls leaning on each other for courage, hits all the right notes and never missteps. There's no awkward moments, or hints of romance, just a genuine kinship memorably evoked by two terrific performances.
What I find most fascinating in Million Dollar Baby, is what goes on in the background of the boxing gym. If you've ever watched Rocky and found yourself wondering what's the story of the individuals in the background, then this is the film for you. There's Danger Barch (Jay Baruchel), a scrawny talentless boxer who comes to the gym every day to train, never once setting foot in the ring, and threatening to challenge a long-since retired pro fighter. There's Shawrelle Berry, who never seems to much except taunt the various boxers around the gym, trying to coax Danger into a bout, and his friend who plays a low-rent Don King to Shawrelle's Mike Tyson. And, there's Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a former boxer who now cleans up after Frankie's various trainees and misfits, sleeping in the back room, never once lamenting his lot in life. They all have a role in the film, and at the climax, you can't help but stand up and cheer.
But, the film belongs to Eastwood and Swank. As Maggie becomes more and more dear to
Frank, a funny thing happened to me. For the last thirty, to forty minutes of the film, I developed an awful knot in my stomach, knowing something bad was going to happen, and something bad most certainly does, but I couldn't turn away. I'd never experienced that before, becoming so emotionally invested in a character, that it actually brought me physical pain. It's a testament to how fully-realized these characters are. Ultimately, in the end, as Eastwood's character is asked to do the impossible by Maggie, a decision that, no matter what he chooses, we, as the audience know it will emotionally destroy him, you can't turn away, because that's what life is: a few people we meet, know and love, and ultimately, in one way or another, have to say goodbye to