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Cinderella Man

(2005) *** Pg-13
144 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Ron Howard. Cast: Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Paddy Considine.

Ron Howard's Cinderella Man—about Depression-era boxer James J. Braddock—may be technically informed by close-up, quick-cut modern boxing movies, but in dramatic terms, it's likeably old-fashioned. For years, Howard has taken his licks as a sunny, populist filmmaker of limited depth, and it's true that no one goes to a Ron Howard movie to be intellectually challenged, but as in Apollo 13, he applies straight-ahead narrative skill to an involving true story; as in A Beautiful Mind, he has acting powerhouse Russell Crowe to obscure (or at least mitigate) the film's weaknesses.

Though it starts out wobbly in Braddock's salad days (Howard overcooks the peppy, musical, name-in-lights prologue), Cinderella Man soon finds its footing. Once the Depression hits, an injured Braddock is chewed up and spit out—to put it nicely: decommissioned—by exploitative promoters (embodied by Bruce McGill of The Insider). With only the paltry income Braddock musters by working the docks, he marginally feeds his wife (Renée Zellweger) and kids, but it's the second chance offered by his former manager (Paul Giamatti) that enables Braddock to pull himself up by his bootstraps and earn the comeback nickname of "Cinderella Man."

Zellweger and Giamatti are fine, but they seem unable to tease out their pat roles into something more than loving but fretful wife and wisecracking stalwart. It's Crowe who, once again, delivers a transcendent performance. Despite a history of injury, Crowe impresses less with his physicality (which we've come to expect) and more with his multi-layered despair in his forced familial failure as an old-school breadwinner. Crowe sells Braddock's return to form with joy, but also an arc of humility through eerie serenity to triumph. Even facing his ultimate test in a championship bout with the hulking Max Baer (a transformed Craig Bierko), Braddock levels an "I'll show them" smile as he looks out over the crowd.

Howard's best movies succeed on the merits of emotionalism or gut-level narrative excitement, and this one has both: the vivid boxing scenes do the job, and it's impossible not to cringe at the Braddock family's destitute plight and cheer for the apparently saintly Braddock against the apparently monstrous champ Max Baer. Howard's worst instinct is to insist on what the audience should think and feel about his characters, but simplicity can be a virtue: in one devastating scene, Braddock resorts to begging from the people to whom he's most loathe to seem vulnerable.

As in Seabiscuit, The Depression is used as melodramatic fodder for grim determination and a supposedly nationwide rooting interest in sport. Damon Runyon coined the name "Cinderella Man" for underdog Braddock, and the film begins with Runyon's comment "In all the history of the boxing game, you'll find no human interest story to compare with the life narrative of James J. Braddock." Howard makes a good case for that point, even though the director's impeccable technique is fair game: his reprises of Eddie Cantor's sarcastic "Cheer Up, Smile, Nertz," say, are more palatable than the sculpted light and patina of sepia that make every shot look like a lost Edward Hopper painting.

Straining to give the story added historical sweep, screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman take us down to Central Park's "Hooverville," where Braddock's friend Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine)—an invented character—faces the music of destitution. On his third-act ascent, Braddock reflects that "in the least I know what's hittin' me" and "this time around, I know what I'm fighting for." Loud and clear: the ring is symbolic of American struggle, every American's struggle, but is the enemy Depression or the next guy, who's fighting for the same job? Cinderella Man may not be subtle, but it's reminiscent of the well-crafted popular entertainments of Hollywood's Golden Age, blarney and all.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio

Street date: 5/26/2009

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Cinderella Man looks its very best in its Blu-ray debut in a film-like transfer that accurately represents the warm, golden glow (and contrasting color-bled Depression) of Salvatore Totino's photography. Nitpickers may notice a hit of artifical detail boosting (by way of DNR), but there's really no doubt this is a knockout image for this film. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix likewise packs a punch (or two or three) in a fantastic immersive experience that recreates the theatrical one for your living room.

The feature is complemented by a truly exhaustive set of bonuses, including three separate feature commentaries, with director Ron Howard, co-writer Akiva Goldsman, and co-writer Cliff Hollingsworth.

"Deleted Scenes" (36:24 with "Play All" option, SD) come with an introduction by Howard (1:20, HD) and optional commentary by Howard.

"The Fight Card: Casting Cinderella Man" (22:59, SD) focuses on the leading roles and their respective actors, with comments from Howard, casting director Jane Jenkins, Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Bruce McGill, Paddy Considine, Rosemarie DeWitt, and producer Brian Grazer.

In "For the Record: A History in Boxing" (6:40, SD), boxing consultant Angelo Dundee shares his expertise; Howard and boxing trainer Wayne Gordon also comment. "Ringside Seats" (9:11, SD) gathers Norman Mailer, Howard, Grazer and Goldsman to discuss the original Braddock-Baer fight and the film's accuracy.

"The Man, The Movie, The Legend: A Filmmaking Journey" (14:02, SD) is a compact making-of touching on the film's origin and production with Howard, Crowe, producer Penny Marshall, Grazer, Zellweger, Goldsman, production designer Wynn Thomas, costume designer Daniel Orlandi, director of photography Salvatore Totino, and executive producer Todd Hallowell.

"Jim Braddock: The Friends & Family Behind the Legend" (11:12) features interviews with Howard, Jim Braddock (voice only), Jim's son Howard Braddock, DeWitt, Jim's granddaughter Susan Braddock Varites, Jim's grandson Tim Braddock, and Crowe.

"Pre-Fight Preparations" (25:15 with "Play All" option, SD) comprises four featurettes: "Focus on Script," "Creating the Reality" (the sets, locations, and period details of the production design), "Russell's Transformation," and "Infaflatable People." Participants include Hollingsworth, Marshall, Crowe, Howard, Goldsman, Grazer, Thomas, location manager Keith Large, Hallowell, Totino, Dundee, Crowe's hair stylist Manny Millar, and inflatable extras supervisor Joe Biggins.

"Lights, Camera, Action: The Fight from Every Angle" (21:25, SD), in fact, details all of the fighting sequences, with Howard, Totino, editors Dan Hanley and Mike Hill, boxing/stunt coordinator Steve Lucescu, boxing choreographer Nick Powell, Thomasz Kurzydlowski, Art Binkowski, Troy Amos-Ross, and Bierko.

Arguably the most interesting extra on the disc is "Russell Crowe's Personal Journey: Becoming Jim Braddock" (27:51, SD), which takes a detailed look at Crowe's highly dedicated training regimen, including surgery for an injury. Crowe, Dundee, Howard, Simmonds, Ross, Lucescu, physiotherapist Errol Alcott, trainer/motivator Mark Carroll, shoulder specialist Dr. Greg Hoy, and former undisputed Super Lightweight World Champion Kostya Tszyu participate.

"Braddock vs. Baer Fight Footage" (32:00, SD) presents the "Official Motion Pictures of the World's Heavyweight Championship Boxing Contest" held on June 13, 1935.

In "The Sound of the Bell" (6:23, SD), Howard and composer Thomas Newman discuss the score. "Cinderella Man Music Featurette" (2:15, SD) covers the same ground with Newman, promo-style. In "The Human Face of the Depression" (6:03, SD), Howard, Grazer, and Goldsman comment on the Depression, as illustrated in vintage photographs and clips from the film.

"Photo Montage" (3:14, SD) combines clips, production stills, and score into an odd little montage. "Kodak Cinderella Man Gallery" (2:03, SD) is a two-minute commercial--no kidding, folks.

Fans of this film may never see a better package than this one, with its extensive bonus features and excellent A/V presentation.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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