Cinderella Man


Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Cinderella Man
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe) was an up-and-coming contender for the heavyweight boxing title when bad luck and The Great Depression thrust him and millions of others into a state of utter destitution. Then, a one shot chance to fight again is presented to the washed up pug, sparking a new, remarkable career and bringing hope to a nation desperately in need of it as the “Cinderella Man.”

Robin:
Director Ron Howard continues to show that he is one of America’s best filmmakers working today. Making a detailed Depression-era period piece on the heals of his Oscar-winning period piece, “A Beautiful Mind” and the late-1800’s western, “The Missing,” is, at the very least, a daunting task. Howard is equal to it though and, with Russell Crowe once again in the lead, has crafted a work worthy as one of his best. The still boyish 50-year old shows his ability to tell a good story and elicit effective performances from his entire cast.

Russell Crowe gives one of his best performances, ever, as everyman Jim Braddock, whose quite literally rags-to-riches story proved to be an inspiration and hope to a country that was trying to cope with nation-wide poverty and unemployment rate over 25%. When Braddock took his one shot chance and won, it didn’t just give him a little money to help save his family, it gave him a dignity long thought lost. The one-time deal led to more fights until, under the managing of Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), Jim gets a shot at the title held by Max Baer (Craig Bierko), the champion who has killed two men in the ring. It’s not a David versus Goliath match but one that pits the ruthless ambition of Baer against something much deeper and stronger in the heart of the Cinderella Man. Maybe it was fate, maybe it was chance, but Jim Braddock proved that you couldn’t keep a good man down.

Crowe commands the screen as the kind and gentle, when out of the ring, Braddock. Renee Zellwegger, as Jim’s loyal, stalwart wife, Mae, takes on what is generally a two-dimensional role and fleshes it out into a living, breathing person. The actress proves, again, her effectiveness as a character actor. The rest of the cast, while not remarkable, is well populated with veteran thespians. Paul Giamatti proves himself very capable as Jim’s friend and manager. Craig Bierko gives a good performance as the champ whose pleasant façade masks the heart of a man who will do anything to win, even kill. Bruce McGill gives a good small perf as the fight promoter who takes a chance on Braddock.

The story and screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth is a finely crafted tale of a man rising above incredibly daunting obstacles in order to take care for his wife and kids. (In one sweet scene, Jim tells his hungry young daughter about his dream of a thick juice steak then insists she eat his meager supper of fried bologna because he is too full to eat it.) Braddock and all are well-defined characters in this true-life tale and its richness of positive messages makes “The Cinderella Man” a crowd-pleaser of quality. This quality extends to all aspects of production and attention to period detail. The fight scenes, too, have the look and feel of the time when two fighters got into the ring and bruised it out. The graceful choreography we usually see in modern boxing films is replaced with the hard-hitting reality of the ring in the 1930’s.

The summer film release schedule is upon us and the multiplex screens will soon be filled with the likes of such Hollywood fare as ”Batman Begins,” “Mr. And Mrs. Smith” and other action and high tech entertainment. Fortunately, for the more mature audience that would rather a good story than copious F/X, “Cinderella Man” will fill that particular bill. I give it a B+.

DVD:

During the height of the Great Depression millions waited for hours in bread and soup lines and struggled for their very existence. One man, James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe), once a contender for the world light heavyweight boxing title, and his family are among the country’s most destitute. Jim is offered a glimmer of hope when his former manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), gets him one more fight and an American legend is born in Ron Howard’s “Cinderella Man.”

Howard and company’s film is a good, old-fashioned biopic that tells the inspirational story of the courage and resolve of boxer Jim Braddock to feed and protect his loyal wife, Mae (Renee Zellweger), and their children. “Cinderella Man” met with critical acclaim when released earlier this year at theaters and the filmmakers capitalize on this praise with the DVD release of not one but two editions: the single-disk version with a plethora of bonus features and the double-disk collector’s edition with even more bells and whistles.

I didn’t get to see the collector’s edition but the single-disk release is chock full of extra material and commentaries that make it a real treat. Instead of the one or two commentary-over-the-film that we usually see on DVD releases, we get three separate commentaries. The first, narrated by director Ron Howard, is the richest of the three with intimate analysis on the making of the film, the challenges in creating a realistic work that is still mainstream entertainment. Howard also brings his own past works into play and how they affected his making of Cinderella Man.” This is an insightful piece that combines making-of info with Howard’s personal film history.

The other two commentaries are by Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and the story creator and co-scribe Cliff Hollingsworth. Goldsmith’s narration is straightforward, with far less embellishment than Howard’s, and the writer’s monotone voice tends to lull the viewer. Hollingsworth’s commentary is more compelling as the author discusses his writing and the liberties that Hollywood takes with such a biography. The background information on his research into Braddock’s life also helps to give his narration resonance.

Other bonus features include a wonderful narration, by Ron Howard, on the deleted scenes from the film. He explains the reasons why certain scenes were cut but his pride in his work is also quite apparent. "The Ringside Seat” feature has the director, writers and boxing aficionado Norman Mailer providing running commentary over the actual Max Baer/Jim Braddock fight that won Braddock the light heavyweight champion title and earned the boxer the Cinderella Man moniker bestowed upon him by author Damon Runyon.

The Man, the Movie, the Legend: A Filmmaking Journey” is an extended featurette that has Ron Howard, Russell Crowe, cinematographer Salvatore Totino, costume designer Daniel Orlandi and make-up artist David Anderson discussing the complexities in making a large scale, Depression-era period drama and love story. The filmmakers provide interesting anecdotes on the trials, tribulations, joys and elations of making “Cinderella Man.”

The feature, “For the Record: A History of Boxing,” focuses on legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee who acted as consultant for “Cinderella Man.” The piece is light on boxing history and is more about Dundee’s experiences in being a part of the making of the story of Jim Braddock. Angelo’s obvious enjoyment in basking in the limelight of Russell Crowe gives the feature a personal feel.

Jim Braddock: The Friends & Family Behind the Legend” provides commentary by the champ’s surviving children and grandchildren, showing Braddock as a good man and father, stripping away the façade of legend. Like the film, the family and friends talk about what Jim was like and the love between him and Mae. The pride in seeing Jim Braddock’s story come to life on the screen is obvious and heartfelt by all involved.

One innovation that I’m glad to see in both versions of the “Cinderella Man” DVD sets the Descriptive Video Service (DVS) feature that allows blind and low-vision audiences the opportunity to enjoy the film.

The collector’s edition goes beyond the single-disc DVD with more deleted scenes, with Howard’s commentary; a feature, “Pre-Fight Preparation,” that focuses on the script and what attracted actors and crew to the production; “Lights, Camera, Action: The Fight From Every Angle” about the film’s cinematography and fight choreography; more “Braddock Versus Baer Fight Footage”; “The Sound of the Bell,” focusing on the music and score, with Howard and composer Thomas Newman; and, finally, the “Cinderella Man Music Featurette.”

I found the single-disk version of “Cinderella Man” to have more than enough extras to entertain and educate the home viewing audience. The film is a solid piece of old-fashioned storytelling and the bonus features are first rate. I give the DVD release an A-.

Laura:
In the 1920's Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe, "A Beautiful Mind") was a successful light heavyweight with a large home in New Jersey paid for with $80,000 purses.  By 1933, the stock market crash and a broken hand found the man struggling to support his beloved wife Mae (Renée Zellweger, "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason") and their four children in fifty dollar bouts.  When a referee has to step in to end a fight because of the beating Braddock's taken,  the boxer's license is revoked and he's left to fight for the few jobs on New York City's docks.  Then something miraculous happened and Braddock climbed to greater glory than he'd ever achieved before. New York American sports journalist Damon Runyan dubbed him the "Cinderella Man."

The Oscar winning team behind "A Beautiful Mind" reteam to tell one of the most inspirational stories in sports.  Director Ron Howard ("The Missing," "A Beautiful Mind"), working from a story and screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth ("A Beautiful Mind's" Akiva Goldsman also has a screenplay credit), not only delivers period veracity in the boxing ring, but gets his audience to appreciate the poverty of the Great Depression.  Actor Russell Crowe, who looks like he stepped right out of the 1930's, can apparently do anything and costar Zellweger has never been more appealing as his fiercely loyal wife.  The only bum note in "Cinderella Man" is the thoroughly bland, plug 'n play score served up by Thomas Newman, "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events").

Howard economically lays out the good years and the solid, flirtatious marriage of the Braddocks.  With one pan of a dresser scarf (cinematography by Salvatore Totino, "The Missing") we're moved from the bedroom of a stately Colonial to the one room basement apartment the Braddocks now inhabit.  Food is scarce (dad talks about dreams of big steaks which have left him full, in order to give his share to his kids) and the utilities are in danger of being shut off.  When the Braddocks lose their heat mid-winter, Mae packs the kids off to her relatives, but Jim has sworn they'd never be split up - he returns to Madison Square Gardens with his hat literally in hand, begging from the man who revoked his license (Bruce McGill, "Matchstick Men," as Mr. Johnston) and his former manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti, "Sideways").  Jim gets his kids back and a shamed Gould gets his friend some more substantial cash by suggesting him as a one-time substitute in a big heavyweight fight with a contender for the crown.  Jim astonishes everyone and captures the imagination of a nation when he wins.  Gould, whose own financial situation is getting dire, fronts his former fighter $175 so that he can continue to train and exactly one year later Jim has 10:1 odds to beat world champion Max Baer, a powerhouse who had already killed two men in the ring.

Crowe is tremendously appealing as Braddock, giving the impression of a genial Robert Mitchum with his period beefiness, hooded eyes and lopsided grin.  He radiates the decency of a man who went to great lengths to provide for his family and care for his friends (Braddock returned all the money he received from government relief funds once he was able to provide for himself again).  Crowe and Zellweger have surprising chemistry, a lusty bond that remains strong no matter how much force is wielded against it.  Zellweger trots out a New Yawk accent without sliding into the parody of "Cold Mountain."  Also good is Giamatti as the honest manager who is told "They oughta put your mouth in the circus.'  He plays Gould as a kind of compassionate hustler.  Craig Bierko ("Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star") gives a breakout performance as the seemingly unbeatable Baer, full of presumption and small-mindedness.  Bruce McGill is notable as the corporate fat cat of boxing, but the usually reliable Paddy Considine ("In America") makes a weak impression as Braddock's dock buddy Mike Wilson.

The screenplay packs in a lot of action without sacrificing character development by using ingenious methods like that dresser pan, or filling us in on Braddock's downfall via a ringside announcer's introduction.  Howard stages the fight sequences with the slower, more awkward pace one would associate with the boxing of seventy years ago.  Period detail is terrific, with Jim's visit to Hooverville, a makeshift camp for the homeless formed in Central Park, a real eye opener.  You can feel the cool, oily, smoky sweatiness of Madison Garden through Totino's camera.  Irish fiddle music used for a training montage is spot on, but no period flavor comes through any other part of Newman's insipid score, the film's worst element.  The final climatic fight is full of suspense.  Frequent cuts to Rene's Mae, who refused to watch her husband's fights, are reminiscent of Talia's Adrian in "Rocky," although it is difficult to imagine how the filmmakers could have avoided this.

"Cinderella Man" is solid commercial filmmaking and 2005's first obvious Oscar contender.  It's a meat and potatoes paean to American perseverance.

B+

DVD:
Presented in its original 2:35:1 aspect ratio, the film holds up well on the smaller screen and is every bit as engaging a second (and third) time around.  Director Ron Howard's commentary has obviously been well thought out in advance, and he brings a surprising amount of personal connection to a movie that was originally pitched by Crowe.  Howard reveals that his first film, a 1/2 hour project for high school, dealt with the Great Depression and that his dad drove sixteen miles to a pool hall to listen to the Braddock/Baer fight on the radio.  Howard also uses personal anecdotes in working with the actors, instructing Renee Zellwellger's maternal fears with a story about his own mom's reaction to his Vietnam era draft number.  The director also discusses filming techniques and difficulties and is always an engaging listen.  There are additional commentary tracks by screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and Cliff Hollingsworth.

Bonus material is mostly on the flip side of the single disc edition.  Deleted scenes with commentary by Howard again are not simply extraneous material, but meaty scenes, particularly one between Giametti and Crowe, that had to be cut for pacing.  'The Man, the Movie, the Legend: A Filmmaking Journey' is a featurette covering multiple aspects of how the film was made and background on Braddock and his times.  'Ringside Seats' features Howard, producer Brian Grazer, writer Akiva Goldsman and author/pugilist Norman Mailer commenting upon the actual Braddock/Baer fight shown in black and white.  The fight itself seems dull by today's standards which makes the exciting editing of "Cinderella Man's" climax all the more impressive. Other segments include a piece on the casting process, trainer Angelo Dundee on the sport and Braddock's surviving family talking about the film.

Note that a full screen edition is also available, as is a collector's edition which includes additional deleted scenes as well as a video diary of Russell Crowe's preparation for the role at his home in Australia.

The "Cinderella Man" DVD has been wisely timed to hit the streets as 2005's Oscar race heats up and remind viewers of top notch performances in a fine period film.  The DVD itself is a feast of a package every bit as good as the film itself.  A-
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