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'Baby' will KO the competition


YOU HAVE an Oscar pool going at your place Sunday night? Then scribble in Million Dollar Baby as your mortal lock for best picture.

Who cares that when it comes to acting, Clint Eastwood still has the emotional range of an ashtray?

Or that co-star Morgan Freeman basically reprises the same role he's played a half-dozen times, that of the (pick one) wise, decent, gentle man who's also a wonderful (pick another one) partner, friend, mentor.

The fact is, Hilary Swank is terrific as Maggie Fitzgerald, a poor hillbilly fighter with a heart bigger than the Ozarks, and the storytelling is first-rate.

OK, the fight scenes are a little over-the-top.

Apparently, Filmmaking 101 now dictates that you're not allowed to show punches being landed unless they're accompanied by overly loud, cartoonish sound effects: WHOMP! POW! BAM!

And the level of punishment that screen fighters absorb - seven or eight haymakers in a row, shots to the gut that would fell a redwood tree - is also cartoonish.

Look, we know boxing is a brutal sport. But if boxers ever took as much punishment in real life, they'd go straight from the ring to the cemetery.

Still, the story behind Million Dollar Baby is so riveting that many say this is the best boxing movie of all time, better than Raging Bull, better than Rocky, better even than my personal favorite, Requiem for a Heavyweight, where Anthony Quinn takes such a savage beating he looks like the Elephant Man by the closing credits.

This is why Million Dollar Baby is a lock for best picture, and why Swank, who looks tough enough to wipe out a barroom full of Hell's Angels, should walk off with the Oscar for best actress - unless the fix is in.

Hmmm, here's something that just occurred to me.

You know what the worst thing is about being nominated for an Oscar?

It's knowing you'll run into the ultra-annoying mother-daughter team of Joan and Melissa Rivers on the red carpet.

C'mon, is there any award in the world worth that kind of aggravation?

Look, I don't care if I'm up for the Nobel Peace Prize.

If I see Melissa and Joan Rivers coming at me with their shark smiles and dueling microphones, I'm turning around and getting back in the limo.

As for the others up for best picture, I guess we should mention them, even though Million Dollar Baby will leave them all in the dust.

Sure, Ray, the glittering musical biography of Ray Charles, is very good. And Jamie Foxx is so convincing as the blind musical legend, you want to run to Charles' grave and make sure he's still there. But at 2 1/2 hours, Ray is way too long.

In fact, it's check-your-watch-every-few-minutes too long.

And if you think the original Ray was too long, check out the recently released DVD, where they added more than 25 minutes of footage left out of the movie.

This thing is so long, by the time you finish watching, Hillary Rodham Clinton will be president.

Also, Ray tended to beat the flashback technique to death. It seemed like every few minutes, the film flashed back to another gauzy scene from Ray's childhood in the rural South.

Usually, to see that many flashbacks, you'd have to spend an hour inside Charles Manson's head.

(Speaking of Ray, here's another question. With all the women Ray Charles was bedding, how did he ever find time to write songs? This guy had so many women lined up, they should have taken numbers, like at a deli counter.)

Sideways is another good film, a fine romantic comedy.

Which of course means it's doomed for best picture.

Woody Allen once said that when you're writing comedy, you're not sitting at the grown-ups' table.

And the voters from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences apparently feel the same way, as evidenced by the fact that a comedy wins best picture about as often as Ed McMahon passes up Happy Hour.

As for The Aviator and Finding Neverland, they have even less of a shot at best picture glory.

No, it says here that come Sunday night, it'll be producer Clint Eastwood striding to the podium and holding up the Oscar when Million Dollar Baby wins the big one.

Or else he'll be sitting in the audience, stunned that another picture won.

Nah. "Stunned" would require too much emotion.

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