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Movie Review: "Million Dollar Baby"

And no, this movie is not about Kyle Farnsworth.

I shouldn't be so flip, because this is without question the best film of 2004.

Roger Ebert says so, and I took that with a dose of skepticism, because I frequently disagree with Roger. This time, though, he happens to be right.

I hadn't realized that Clint Eastwood has directed twenty-five films, including "Mystic River", the movie that should have been Best Picture of 2003, not that bloated carcass that was "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King", and yes, I know many of you loved it, but "Rings" was given the awards really for the whole series, not for the individual movie, and Eastwood, who starred in many spaghetti Westerns and started his directing career with "Play Misty For Me", now has made masterpieces out of what are truly dark stories, and does them in a way, in this one as in "Mystic River", that absolutely compel you to watch.

Here's the basic story. Hilary Swank -- who is going to win another Best Actress award for this one -- plays Maggie, a dirt-poor girl from the Ozarks who comes to Los Angeles to work out in Eastwood's third-rate boxing gym, the one he started after his boxing-manager career, also third-rate, had fizzled after he couldn't (or wouldn't) get a title bout for Scrap-Iron (wonderfully played in an understated way by the wonderful Morgan Freeman).

Maggie wants Frankie, played by Eastwood (and I was shocked to discover that he is seventy-five years old), to train her. He resists. And resists, and resists, until Scrap breaks him down. Freeman, nearly seventy himself, hits every note in this film right on, and ought to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Swank, whose life story (she and her mother lived in their car in LA for a while when she was a teenager) isn't that much different from the character she plays, buffed up for this movie, and with Frankie's tough patience, starts getting fights. And starts winning fights.

And you see her doing things for her extremely ungrateful family, all of whom you'd love to strangle, and if you didn't know better you'd think Frankie and Maggie were falling in love, though that's never outwardly stated, and you think nothing of their age difference.

But that's not what this movie is about.

And it's not about boxing either. About two-thirds of the way through something happens that I will not reveal, which changes the entire tone of the film, and as drawn in as you are beforehand, you will be absolutely riveted to these people, characters created by F. X. Toole and Paul Haggis, the writers, and Eastwood as director. You will find yourself deeply caring about everything that happens, and it happens in a believable, realistic human way.

This is a very dark film in many ways, especially the way it is photographed, in blues and browns and shadows everywhere, even in outdoor scenes, but that too is carefully crafted to strike exactly the right moods.

This movie is a winner in every way. Do NOT miss it.

AYRating: ****