by Bill Hawk

Warner Bros, 2004, Color, 133 mins.- Warner Bros DVD

Hilary Swank: "If I was thinkin' straight, I'd go back home, find a used trailer, buy a deep fryer and some Oreos. Problem is, this is the only thing I ever felt good doin'. If I'm too old for this, then I got nothin'."

At age 31, wannabe boxer Swank is way too old for veteran trainer and Hit Pit Gym owner Clint Eastwood to take under his wing- even if she weren’t a girl. But with the defection of his star fighter, Eastwood has some free time on his hands, and is more open to the suggestion of his sidekick Morgan Freeman that Swank has something. At first, the cranky Eastwood distances himself from her, but her natural talent wins him over, and the two forge a surrogate father/daughter bond. She battles her way up in tried-and-true boxing movie fashion, all the way to a title fight in Las Vegas. But then something goes really, really wrong, and Eastwood finds himself facing a more direct responsibility for Swank’s future than he ever anticipated.

There isn’t much to say about the plot of this film, which was adapted from F.X. Toole’s story collection “Rope Burn.” It’s as familiar and comfortable as an old shoe, with interesting characters and plenty of crowd-pleasing moments- and a controversial plot twist that cranks the drama up to 11. The performers are more than up to the dramatic challenge, with Freeman’s retired boxer and Swank’s knockout queen from Hicksville netting them each Oscars. Eastwood’s surprisingly emotional star turn did not garner a similar award- but winning Best Picture and Director must have softened the blow. At an age when most people are taking it easy, this guy continues to turn out work which has its ups and downs, but which always stands out from the crowd. And he’s firing on all cylinders here, giving us a seemingly stock boxing tale that turns out to be a meditation on guilt and loss, with a climax that packs a real emotional wallop. Even if the idea of a boxing picture turns you off, you will find much that is worthwhile in this one. Extras on the two-disc set are surprisingly sparse, comprised of some featurettes. A three-disc set is also available, with a CD of the film’s score- which was composed by (the apparently rather busy) Mr. Eastwood.


New South Wales Film Corp, 1979, Color, 100 mins.- Blue Underground DVD

Judy Davis: “You know, I think ugly girls should be strangled at birth by their parents. It’s bad enough being born a girl, but being born ugly and clever…”

Yeah, opportunities for women at the end on the 19th century in the Australian countryside were rather limited, more so if they didn’t have a pretty face- and if they were free spirits with a tendency to mouth off, they were really up against it. Davis dreams of something better than her farm life, and is lucky enough to be able to go and stay with relatives in the Aussie equivalent of an English country home. While there, her impulsiveness sets her at odds with her grandmother, who thinks that she should act like a lady and accept the proposal of a visiting Brit. But Davis rejects both the man and the notion that she, the plain and “Difficult” one, must jump at any chance of marriage- she’s seen what the institution does to women, and she’ll be having none of it. Her resolve is tested, however, when she runs into childhood acquaintance Sam Neill, a guy who knows a diamond in the rough when he sees one. Their mutual attraction waxes and wanes, and when their respective fortunes take a downturn, they endure a long separation. But eventually Davis will have to choose between Neill and her dream of becoming a writer….

This popular and award-winning debut feature of director Gillian Armstrong is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Miles Franklin, a woman whose life and ideals mirrored those of her main character. As portrayed by Judy Davis, that character is a woman whose inner spark gives her an appeal that belies her plain appearance. It’s hard not to root for her as she faces everything from staid Victorians in posh parlors to scraggly children in muddy hovels- and maintains her integrity all the while. The “Masterpiece Theatre” type plot is more than a little moldy, but the performances, and delightful moments such as an extended pillow fight between Davis and Neill, keep things from getting too stuffy. In addition, the production values are good across the board, and there are plenty of colorful views of the Australian bush country. If you’re looking for a period drama/romance with a spunky proto-feminist lead character, you’ll enjoy this. Extras on this two-disc set include audio commentary by director Anderson, vintage footage of the film’s showing at Cannes, and a stills gallery.

J. Arthur Rank Organisation, 1951, B&W, 90 mins.- Criterion DVD


Michael Redgrave: “The Himmler of the lower fifth. I suppose that will become my epitaph.”

Schoolmaster Redgrave is one cold fish, having spent 18 years trying to pass his love of classical languages and literature on to the boys at a stodgy British school, with very little success. His early ambitions have long since burned out, his marriage is an even larger pile of ashes, and now he is leaving his post because of a bad heart- which is a surprise to his students, who always assumed that he didn’t have one. Nevertheless, his impending departure dredges up long-repressed feelings, not only of regret but of satisfaction as well, for there were times when he managed to get through to the odd boy or two. And when one of his current lads shows that same spark, manifested by a farewell gift of the titular book, a little crack in Redgrave’s shell briefly splits wide open. The repercussions of this moment will affect not only Redgrave, but also his two-timing wife, her lover, the weaselly headmaster of the school, and the entire student body. When Redgrave finally walks away from the place, his whole life has been painfully and irrevocably changed- for the better.

This minor masterpiece, adapted by Terence Rattigan from his stage play, presents a character that one can be only mildly curious about at first. But your sympathy for him grows as you see just what he’s had to put up with, and what he’s lost. This is a man who has been guilty of doing the wrong things for the right reasons, and has suffered for it- and Redgrave’s performance makes that suffering fascinating. With his stoic demeanor and high, clipped voice, his only sign of life the occasional sarcastic remark directed toward his students, he could be nothing but a particularly clever robot. When the true man is revealed beneath that chilly exterior, the effect is striking. Writer Rattigan and director Anthony Asquith keep things interesting with a series of revelations, setbacks, and minor triumphs, aided by an excellent cast that also includes Jean Kent as the wife, Nigel Patrick as her lover, and Wilfred Hyde White as the headmaster. Recommended for classic drama fans and Anglophiles, or for anybody whose interest is piqued by an apparently inhumane story, which turns out to be anything but. Extras on the disc include audio commentary and a vintage interview with star Redgrave.


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© Melt Magazine 2005