To coincide with the theatrical release of Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon," Universal has collected four of the director's previous efforts - "Backdraft," "Apollo 13," "A Beautiful Mind," and "Cinderella Man" - for "The Ron Howard Spotlight Collection." It's a mixed bag: I'm not too sure if the audience pleaser "Backdraft" belongs in a collection of Howard's more prestigious efforts, but as a sampling of his work at Universal, you could do much worse.
The eight-disc set is simply a re-release of the films' previous individual two-disc special editions (all of them several years old, all of them impressively comprehensive), upgraded only in the sense that they now feature new cover art (unifying a simple, elegant design scheme). The discs are housed in a four-panel digipak with four trays holding the eight discs (in the "overlapping disc" style); the digipak then fits nicely into a sleek outer box.
If you already own these titles separately, there's no reason to get this set. But if you haven't yet added these to your collection, here's a way to get them at a reasonable price, and in an attractive package that will look snappy on your shelf.
"Backdraft" may not be a very good movie, but it sure is great entertainment. Its screenplay is cheesy and overwrought and obvious, with melodrama played to the hilt, and beyond. Ah, but then there is the action, terrific thrills built around still-remarkable practical visual effects that put the cast - and us - directly in the thick of the blaze. As something of an early-90s update of an Irwin Allen-era disaster flick, this is ripping good stuff.
Gregory Widen's rough screenplay features two Chicago brothers, both haunted by the death of their firefighter father some twenty years earlier, both continuing the family firehouse tradition. Stephen "Bull" McCaffrey (Kurt Russell) takes a macho approach to his work, while younger brother Brian (William Baldwin), fresh out of training, struggles to live up to the family name. Rookie Brian winds up in Bull's unit, and at least here the story works, as the stubborn brothers clash on duty and off; we don't mind the cornball moments (a montage of Bull teaching Brian how to carry a hose up a fire escape plays like a parody of itself, with over-the-top music and ridiculous dialogue) because the characters are enjoyable. Russell gives his Bull a certain butch swagger, while Baldwin (who somehow failed to later make much of what should have been a star-making turn in a smash hit) brings a lighthearted charm to his role.
But the script then feels obliged to pad out both brothers' lives with undercooked romance: Bull is separated from his wife (Rebecca De Mornay); Brian reunited with an old flame (Jennifer Jason Leigh). This leads to fun scenes like sex atop a fire engine, but it also leads to drippy, sluggish moments involving characters who aren't really developed enough to serve as centerpieces for romantic subplots. Widen struggles to get us to care about Baldwin and Leigh as a couple, and the Russell-De Mornay story leaves us yawning. (De Mornay brings more to her character than her storyline deserves, however, so it's not a total loss.)
There's also a mystery at play. Somebody's killing associates of a city councilman, with the elaborate murders - all arson - concocted in such a way that the culprit surely must be a fireman.
Robert De Niro pops up as a feisty arson inspector, struggling to unravel the case while juggling local politics and a few old cases (including a solidly creepy cameo from Donald Sutherland as a childish pyromaniac). This is outstanding stuff, and we wonder why it's constantly taking the back seat to the nonsense about the two brothers and their petty rivalries. When Brian quits the unit and joins up with De Niro's inspector, things tie together more nicely, but still: there's some fabulous stuff going on within this subplot, and it's too often shoved to the side in favor of lesser drama.
Widen and Howard do not want their movie to be a mystery thriller, however; they're aiming for a grand tribute to the firefighters of the world - the film ends with a stirring funeral and a title card informing us of the thousands of firefighters hard at work every day. It worked; "Backdraft" played a key role in cementing the idea of firefighter as American hero into the nation's subconscious. The script's cheap family drama and middling romance and corny training montages get in the way too often (in a way that fails to latch on to the more honest notions of community and camaraderie found in firehouses across the country), but the film really hits its mark when the firemen are on duty, risking lives to save others.
There are massive thrills in the action sequences, thanks to Howard's keen direction and Allen Hall's brilliant effects work (all done live on set, in the days before digital trickery). Here, the movie is all spectacle, eager to wow. And in a clever move, the fire becomes its own character, growling and roaring at our heroes like a beast from hell. Seventeen years later, these scenes hold up stunningly well, and they'll continue to do so, long after we're done giggling over the dated, cheesy attempts at drama.
This is the "Two-Disc Anniversary Edition," originally released September 2006.
Video & Audio
The fire sequences look beautiful here, with bold, vivid colors popping out of deep, rich black levels. There's plenty of grain to go around in the rest of the scenes, and a pinch of softness, too, both inherent with the early-90s film stock being used; a solid level of detail and lack of digital interference makes this soft look forgivable.
The booming soundtrack was one of the highlights of the film's theatrical experience, and recreated here in Dolby 5.1, it still wows, with the crackling sound effects and Hans Zimmer's inspiring musical score coming through excellently. Spanish and French stereo dubs are provided, as are optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles.
Ron Howard offers a quick introduction to the film (2:54; 1.78:1 flat letterbox), in which he quickly discusses the movie's effects work and his thoughts on firefighters. The introduction plays automatically before the movie; you can also watch it separately via the special features menu.
A heavy dose of deleted scenes (43:09; 1.33:1 open matte full frame) offer far more extra story than you'd ever need from this movie, including a nice, welcome expansion of the mystery subplot. These clips look like they're taken from a rough video transfer of incomplete edits.
Trailers for various (now-dated) Universal releases play as the disc loads.
Archival interviews (which look like they were created in 1991 for EPK purposes), new interviews, and on-set footage are blended for an extensive making-of documentary, divided into several parts (there is no "play all" feature): "Igniting the Story" (15:01), "Bringing Together the Team" (19:10), "The Explosive Stunts" (14:42), "Creating the Villain: The Fire" (12:52), and "Real-Life Firemen, Real-Life Stories" (8:59); each featurette title pretty clearly explains its theme. Most satisfying is the final featurette, in which real firefighters describe their experiences. All featurettes are presented in 1.33:1 full frame, with movie clips properly letterboxed.
"Apollo 13" (1995)
"Apollo 13" remains Howard's masterpiece. Here is that rare film that improves with age, as all the little details, those tiny ever-so-right things tucked away in the nooks and corners of the story, reveal themselves to you on second, fifth, twenty-fifth viewing, while all the things that felt so right the first time feel just as right all over again. I adored this film in 1995 and love it even more today. It is, quite simply, one of the finest movies ever produced.
The film works because of its simplicity. Listen closely to the closing narration by Tom Hanks, who plays veteran astronaut Jim Lovell, upon whose book "Lost Moon" the film is adapted. Screenwriters William Broyles, Jr., and Al Reinert do not attempt to flower the speech with lofty metaphors and grand eloquence; instead, Hanks talks in a straightforward manner: here, briefly, is what happened after the mission ended, and here is what I think of my experiences. There's no need to show off with flamboyant dialogue. The story itself is exceptional, as are the people who lived it.
(Must I recount the plot? In 1970, NASA's third trip to the moon met with disaster, endangering the lives of the three astronauts on board; Howard's film tells the story of the mission in remarkable detail.)
What makes the story of "Apollo 13" remarkable is not what happened when the damaged coil within the ship's oxygen tank exploded, but what happened next. The film finds the right heart, turning history into a tribute to teamwork and ingenuity. The crew encounters a long string of dangers, each one of them requiring a unique solution, and just watch how a small army of great minds pitch in. There is no reaching for glory, no egos desperate for credit. Here, with time running out and three lives on the line, everyone puts their heads together and become all the better for it.
Ed Harris received much acclaim (quite deserved) for his performance as flight director Gene Kranz, whose speech about how "failure is not an option" became modern day shorthand for gumption and resolve. But there's a better scene featuring Kranz that's even better at defining the movie's themes. Shortly after the explosion, he's approached by flight controller Sy Liebergot, played by Clint Howard:
Liebergot: Flight, I recommend we shut down reactant valves to the fuel cells.
Kranz: What the hell good is that gonna do?
Liebergot: If that's where the leak is, we can isolate it. We can save what's left in the tanks and we can run on the good cell.
Kranz: You close 'em, you can't open 'em again. You can't land on the moon with one healthy fuel cell.
Liebergot: Gene, the Odyssey is dying. From my chair here, this is the last option.
Kranz pauses for a second or two, then gives the go ahead. What a remarkable moment. Here is a key decision, a bold risk that will instantly change the rest of the mission from a landing operation to a rescue attempt. Kranz had every right to ask for more time or second opinions; instead, he looks into the eyes of a man whose specialized expertise is indispensable, and says, essentially, I trust you to be right, even if I'm not sure.
The entire film is loaded with little moments like this, when Kranz - and, by extension, astronauts Lovell, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) - cannot afford time for explanations and must rely entirely on the trust that the great minds around him know exactly what they need to know in order to help. (Of course, these great minds occasionally disagree, and they do so forcefully but respectfully; here, it becomes Kranz's job to unify the crew under his decisions.)
All of this makes "Apollo 13" sound like the world's most expensive corporate training video. There is, of course, more to it. We also get a stirring tribute to the golden age of NASA, and the unfathomable situation where less than a year after landing on the moon, a nation was actually bored by another mission. There's a sadness over this feeling of apathy (still shamefully present in America today) - how terrific is Kathleen Quinlan as Marilyn Lovell, bitterly suggesting that the television networks who only care when it suits their ratings can go to hell? - but it's tempered with a genuine sense of awe over ordinary men daring to do extraordinary things.
The screenplay crackles with excitement and humanity, the cast reaches perfection with earnest performances, and Howard captures the right rhythms to the story, never forcing the action, allowing the tale to unfold on its own terms. The technical crew then allows all of these elements to click into place by surrounding them with effects work that's undetectable - the flawless recreation of the launch, the command center, the tiny world of the command module floating in space, all building a seamless realism that helps sell the drama.
The drama! It remains impossible to watch the final minutes of this film through dry eyes; knowing the outcome in advance never matters. Howard's handling of the material is spot-on, leading us slowly, surely up to the final crisis, the danger of re-entry. The waiting is unbearable, the reveal utterly simple. The story does not require anything more, except, perhaps, for that shot of Mission Control erupting in cheers. And we cheer, too.
This is the "Two-Disc Anniversary Edition," originally released March 2005.
Video & Audio
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is gorgeous, rich with bold colors, crisp detail, and deep black levels. "Apollo 13" was always a showcase for great visuals, and here it shines, about as good as it can possibly get in standard definition.
As with "Backdraft," this film won an Oscar for its sound work, so it's no surprise the Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is brilliant. The centerpiece for the action is the booming launch scene, but the whole thing's impressive, from the fabulous presentation of James Horner's musical score to the quiet, intimate scenes dependent entirely on simple dialogue. Spanish and French 5.1 dubs are included, as are optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles.
Two commentary tracks run over the feature. The first is with Ron Howard, who offers lively thoughts on the film's making. The second is better, featuring the real-life Jim and Marilyn Lovell, both excellent storytellers who appreciate the film but love pointing out the slight inaccuracies and dramatic liberties taken with the story.
"Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13" (58:04; 1.33:1) is an exhaustive making-of documentary, collecting detailed interviews with cast, crew, and real-life figures. Archival footage makes this as much a tribute to and study of the actual Apollo mission as it is a recounting of the film's creation. This was produced for the 1996 laserdisc of "Apollo 13" and has appeared on every home video reissue of the film since; it's such a terrific documentary that deserves to appear on every reissue to come.
Haven't seen these on a DVD in a while: lengthy text-only Production Notes offer PR-friendly behind-the-scenes tales.
The film's theatrical trailer (2:29; 1.33:1) rounds out the disc.
A trailer for "Cinderella Man" plays as the disc loads.
The main attraction on the second disc is the "IMAX Experience" version of the film, created for the film's 2002 re-release for IMAX theaters. I'm not a fan of this re-formatted edit, as it chops a cool twenty minutes of story from the running time and crops the image, limiting the visual splendor of the work. But it does have its supporters, who prefer the speedier pacing. Presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, with Dolby 5.1 and DTS soundtracks and optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles, looking and sounding just as good as the theatrical cut on Disc One.
Also included are two more featurettes on space exploration. "Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond" (48:25; 1.33:1) is a nifty primer on space travel, from Sputnik to modern advances and problems; "Lucky 13: The Astronauts' Story" (12:14; 1.33) is a repackaging of a 1995 tie-in piece from NBC's "Dateline," in which the "Apollo 13" story is retold by those that lived it (with a heavy assist from movie clips).
This is familiar: the trailer for "Cinderella Man" plays as this disc loads, too.
"A Beautiful Mind" (2001)
In my original review of "A Beautiful Mind," written just as the film was becoming the Oscar frontrunner for the 2001 awards season (it went on to win four trophies: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress), I boasted that this was Howard's best film. I was, perhaps, caught up in the post-movie rush of the moment, too eager to fling superlatives in every direction, my head still reeling from a sharp drama that delivered some unexpected turns. (There's also the "Grinch" factor: that Howard could make anything this good less than a year after making something as terrible as "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" must've meant something important.)
So, no, it's not Howard's best movie. A repeat viewing, years removed from the initial rush, reveals a film that gets a little too sluggish as it reaches its finale. It's a little stiff at times, too eager to impress. But it is still an excellent film, one that takes great risks in its storytelling, and sees them through.
The film is a (highly) fictionalized biography of John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician who invented a revolutionary economic theory I will not pretend to understand. The stunning fact of the case is that Nash did such valuable, groundbreaking work while suffering from schizophrenia. (Note: Major spoilers from here on out.)
Akiva Goldsman's screenplay walks a thin line in handling the disease - one false move one way, you're demonizing mental illness; a wrong step the other direction, and you're turning the disease into an insulting form of adorable wackiness. Goldsman tries a third, unexpected option: he gives us three characters for Nash to encounter throughout his life, and only later does he reveal that they do not exist. This is a stretch from reality (Nash heard voices but did not see imaginary people), but it works for the visual needs of cinema.
More importantly, this rug-pulling switcheroo (treated with more care and personal urgency than your usual "gotcha" plot twist) lets us experience the story from Nash's point of view. These figments include a boisterous college roommate (played with vibrant glee by Paul Bettany) and a sinister government agent (Ed Harris), both of whom become very important to John's life; the shock that such close people do not actually exist is devastating, and we're floored, too.
Watching the movie a second time, one discovers a certain logic to this deception. There's cheating, of course - it's the roommate who pushes a desk out a window, which is obviously not how it happened but obviously how John remembers it - but it also helps create a believability for Nash's more worrisome thoughts. A secret implant injected into his arm by the CIA sounds like the ravings of a lunatic, yet here we are anyway, watching him get injected, believing the whole thing to be real.
It helps that Howard presents this entire CIA storyline with the brisk deftness of a spy thriller. That's a huge move away from the film's opening section, a quaint look at Nash's life at Princeton. Those scenes are warm, sentimental, straightforward, impressed by Nash's reclusive genius - this is the movie we expect when we start to watch "A Beautiful Mind." We then jump ahead a few years to the thick of the Cold War, and Ed Harris' mysterious spook enters the picture. We fall for it. Nash, we've come to know, has a way with numbers, and he's been hired to decode secret Russian messages left in magazines, newspapers, advertisements.
Again, looking back, we're amused at how easily we were first led into Nash's delusions. Secret spy codes in ads for shaving cream? Isn't that what the crazy smelly guy on the corner shouts? How did we not see that? Easy: Howard and Goldsman rely on spy thriller cliché, the same sort of thing Nash himself probably enjoyed, the sort of thing we've become accustomed to seeing in such genre work. Sure, it might be a bit fictional, as most biopics are, but it's so engaging that we run with it. (Besides, this being the world of academia in the 1950s, such paranoia never really seemed out of place. Nash's colleagues are surprised to learn his decryption work is phony, since the mood of the time made it seem so likely.)
The film settles into its third mode - straight-on biography - after Nash discovers his illness and the fictions of his invented companions. He settles down, tries to return to a normal life, battles an illness that leaves him too paranoid without medication, too dampened with it. There are tense, showy moments like a scene where John almost (accidentally) drowns his infant son in the bathtub, but most of this section of the film is drier, sadder, as if real life fails to live up to the excitement of John's fantasies. The relationship between John and wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly, who won the Academy Award) might not quite click with the romantic grandeur the script tries to grant it, but there's an earnestness here that carries us through.
All of this hinges entirely upon the talents of Russell Crowe, whose performance here makes the film. How wonderful to see a movie star known for his rugged swagger melt so easily into the role of an insular nerd, all nervous tics and withdrawn uncertainty. As Nash, Crowe fits effortlessly into the film's many moods and styles, creating a complex character - watch how he swings from shy to cocky to haunted while always remaining true to the person underneath.
It's a powerful performance that lifts the movie into the realm of something special, allowing us to forgive the film's faults and celebrate its successes. "A Beautiful Mind" is an unconventional biography, and Crowe grounds it all, creating a delightfully complicated portrait of tortured genius.
This is the "Two-Disc Awards Edition," originally released June 2002.
Video & Audio
As we get to newer and newer films in the set, it shouldn't be a surprise that "A Beautiful Mind" looks splendid, even on a disc from several years back. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer holds up very well, with nice colors and fine detail making the most of Howard's restrained color scheme. Grain and softness are minimal.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack does an impressive job balancing the dialogue-heavy story with James Horner's music and some inventively unassuming sound effects work that plays a key role in presenting Nash's illness. A French 5.1 dub is included, as are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Howard and Goldsman each get their own commentary track. Howard is enjoyable; Goldsman is a little dry, but nothing off-putting.
A heavy batch of deleted scenes (26:51; 1.85:1 flat letterbox) is offered with optional Ron Howard commentary. (There's also an audio-only introduction to these scenes from Howard.) There's plenty of interesting stuff to be found here, even if all were rightly cut.
Text-only Production Notes and cast/crew biographies aren't the only dated extras here: there's also a DVD-Rom feature called "Universal Studios Total Axess," which is a fancy, poorly spelled way of describing a web link.
"A Beautiful Partnership" (5:23; 1.33:1) is a short take on the team of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and their collaboration on "A Beautiful Mind." It's sort of a go-nowhere piece, not really getting into the details of their partnership.
"Inside a Writer's Mind: A Conversation with Akiva Goldsman" (8:17; 1.33:1) finds the writer explaining the origins of the screenplay.
"Meeting John Nash" (8:28; 1.33:1) presents video of a meeting between the real Nash and Ron Howard, where Nash tried to explain his "game theory" to Howard. It made my brain explode - although Nash is fun to watch.
"Accepting the Nobel Prize in Economics" (1:57; 1.33:1) is just as it sounds: footage of Nash receiving the Nobel Prize in Stockholm in 1994. No speech, just him getting the darn thing.
In "Casting Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly" (5:57; 1.33:1), Ron Howard and Brian Grazer find a way to explain how they decided to cast his stars without resorting to "they're gorgeous people who can act." It's a nice breakdown of the characters, and how the cast fits together with a screenplay.
The complex makeup work of the film is detailed in "The Process of Age Progression" (7:14; 1.33:1).
A batch of storyboard comparisons (8:00 total; 1.33:1) shows side-by-side comparisons of three final scenes and two deleted scenes with their storyboard counterparts; Howard gives a brief introduction explaining why he uses storyboards.
You don't immediately think of visual effects with this film, but they're there, and they're detailed in "Creating the Special Effects" (10:46; 1.33:1). Some effects are obvious (the vibrant visuals of Nash's mathematic thoughts, the time-lapse shot of the college dorm window) while others (the Princeton campus, the Nobel audience) aren't so noticeable.
Composer James Horner runs down his writing and recording process in "Scoring the Film" (5:55; 1.33:1); Charlotte Church, who performed the angelic vocals in the score, also appears for a moment.
After all this, do we need "Inside A Beautiful Mind" (22:31; 1.33:1)? It's one of those promotional shows produced for HBO, or maybe Showtime, packed with EPK-style interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. It's nice that they've included everything, but this piece is rather redundant.
The "Academy Awards" section (5:27 total; 1.33:1) collects clips from the Oscars telecast and backstage interviews for each of the film's four wins. We get the Best Picture acceptance speech, but, mercifully, not Connelly's infamously monotone acceptance speech. (We see her instead via an excerpt from a backstage press interview.)
Finally (whew!), the film's theatrical trailer (2:28; 1.78:1 flat letterbox), a promo for the soundtrack CD (0:32; 1.78:1 flat letterbox), a batch of "recommended" titles (if I like "A Beautiful Mind," I'll like "Patch Adams"? Are you sure?), and a text-only list of websites for mental health resources round out the set.
"Cinderella Man" (2005)
After an iffy attempt at the western genre with the dreary, awkward Tommy Lee Jones vehicle "The Missing" in 2003, Howard went back to Oscar Bait territory - and he wasn't at all shy about his intentions. Reuniting Howard with Crowe and Goldsman, "Cinderella Man" plays like a movie actively hunting for awards. But it's also a pretty darn good story, with one hell of a finale.
The film opens with a title card quoting writer Damon Runyon: "In all the history of the boxing game you find no human interest story to compare with the life narrative of James J. Braddock." This is a brassy move, telling us right up front that we're about to see a tale so great it is without equal in its genre. Perhaps it was too much: the film hit theaters a mere six months after "Million Dollar Baby," a film heavy in humility, a film that would never assume to offer up such a title card.
The point, one would hope, is not to boast of the following movie's greatness, but to explain how important a figure Braddock was during the Great Depression. Here was a man of the people, offering hope by conquering the boxing world while still struggling through the daily grind of poverty. The quote was made not with the hindsight of history but in the urgency of the present.
When we first meet Braddock (played by Crowe), he's living the good life as a top boxer. His victories are hollow, though; he does not appreciate them. A string of losses (in the ring and the stock market) leads to bad fortune, and he and his family (Renee Zellweger plays his wife) move to a cramped apartment, where they can barely pay the bills. Jim finds occasional work as a longshoreman, his boxing license eventually stripped due to bad fights and a broken right hand.
But then his former manager, Joe Gould (a feisty, wonderful Paul Giamatti), arrives with an offer: a few hundred bucks to spar an up-and-comer in search of an easy win. Whaddyaknow, Jim wins. And again, and again, and soon he finds himself scheduled to fight heavyweight champ Max Baer (Craig Bierko).
The screenplay, from Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, isn't too far removed from those soggy old B-grade boxing dramas. Crowe finds a certain sweetness as the lug with the kind heart, while Zellweger wrings her hands over thoughts of Jim getting hurt in the ring and Giamatti shouts motivational one-liners from ringside. There's certainly nothing here that deserves the 144-minute running time.
The problem is that the script is a bit too lopsided - it takes us from Braddock's fall to first hints of a rise all too quickly, then drags its feet getting us to the final bout. To use the Runyon-inspired metaphor of the title, this film's draggy middle section is like what would happen if "Cinderella" was all about trying on shoes.
There's some clever stuff here, though, bits that really get to the heart of the characters, letting them breathe and grow beyond the confines of the genre. In one aside, Braddock visits a government office to return the relief money given to him when his family was desperate. (This story, amazingly, is true.) Elsewhere, we're shown scenes of the Depression's effect on the everyday family, and it's interesting to discover just how bad the Braddocks had it. Even with Jim's string of comeback victories, they still couldn't afford to climb out of their financial woes. Indeed, "Cinderella Man" is often more effective as a study of the Depression than it is a boxing movie; there's more power to be found in a scene of the Braddock kids hunting for firewood than in shots of Jim training for the title.
Then comes that fight night, and suddenly we're on to something special. Howard's presentation of the bout is dynamic and tense, with each round offered as its own brutal mini-story. As a director, he's obviously taken notes from all the great boxing pictures, building on their methods, placing the camera up close in the ring to capture every punch, every drop of sweat and blood. Editors Dan Hanley and Mike Hill (both have worked with Howard since 1982's "Night Shift") create a certain power in the rhythms of the fight, helping to make this finale a great movie stuck inside a lesser one. Although that lesser one's still pretty good.
This is the two-disc "Collector's Edition," originally released December 2005.
Video & Audio
The newest film of the bunch, "Cinderella Man" looks stunning in this 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Howard peppers his film with plenty of browns and grays, and this scheme looks vibrant, never dull, despite the muted look. Detail is splendid, and black levels are strong and rich.
Once again, we're treated to an exceptional Dolby 5.1 soundtrack, one that deftly blends crunching sound, bold music (this time from Thomas Newman), and crisp dialogue. Whatever Howard is doing for his sound crews, he's doing it right, and it shows up on disc. A French 5.1 dub is included, as is an English DVS track, as well as optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles.
Disc One, Side One
Three commentary tracks support the feature: one from Ron Howard, one from Akiva Goldsman, and one from Cliff Hollingsworth. That's seven-and-a-half hours of talk, which is overkill, but not unwelcome.
Disc One, Side Two
As with "A Beautiful Mind," here we get a batch of deleted scenes (21:00; 1.78:1 flat letterbox) accompanied by Ron Howard audio introduction and optional Howard commentary. These are mainly extensions of story threads that made it to the final cut, offering quality character moments that don't quite fit in the movie proper.
"The Fight Card: Casting Cinderella Man" (22:58; 1.33:1) finds cast and crew discussing the characters of the film and the work put into bringing them to life.
"The Man, The Movie, The Legend: A Filmmaking Journey" (14:02; 1.33:1) continues the making-of accounts, briefly following the film from conception to filming.
In "For the Record: A History in Boxing" (6:40; 1.33:1), the film's boxing consultant, Angelo Dundee, offers his thoughts on the sport and Crowe's abilities in the ring.
Howard, Grazer, and Goldsman sit down with Norman Mailer (!) in "Ringside Seats" (9:11; 1.33:1), in which the author walks the filmmakers though footage of the actual Braddock-Baer fight. It's a great feature, led by an enthusiastic Mailer.
"Jim Braddock: The Family & Friends Behind the Legend" (11:12; 1.33:1) uses more archival footage and new interviews to present a more straightforward take on the Braddock story. Howard and Crowe horn in here and there, but when Braddock's family shows up, things really click.
The "Kodak Cinderella Man Gallery" (2:04; 1.33:1) sneaks a cheap commercial for "Cinderella Man" into a cheap commercial for Kodak.
A second batch of deleted scenes (15:23; 1.78:1 flat letterbox) is tossed in here, again with Howard commentary and introduction. I suppose these are the scenes too good to show to the folks who bought the one-disc version of the film.
"Russell Crowe's Personal Journey: Becoming Jim Braddock" (27:51; 1.78 anamorphic) is a sort of part-video diary, part-making-of journal following Crowe's training for the film, including the shoulder injury suffered along the way. Crowe's narration includes quiet meditations on fighting and acting. Crowe even wrote some of the music featured along the way!
Divided into four sections, "Pre-Fight Preparations" (25:15; 1.33:1) is yet another making-of documentary, from concept to filming. Redundant, but enjoyable.
"Lights, Camera, Action: The Fight from Every Angle" (21.25; 1.33:1) is a detailed rundown of the work put into filming the movie's boxing sequences. Most interesting is a look at a punching bag with a camera inside, which allowed the filmmakers to achieve impressive first-person views of the fights.
"Braddock vs. Baer Fight Footage" (31:59; 1.33:1) is another, simpler name for the complete 1935 film "Official Motion Pictures of the World's Heavyweight Championship Boxing Contest Between Max Baer and Jim J. Braddock." This is the complete fight, from introductions to decision, and it's probably the best inclusion in the set.
"Photo Montage" (3:14; 1.33:1) plays production stills in a slideshow format, with Thomas Newman's score and dialogue from the film accompanying.
Newman gets his own featurette with "The Sound of the Bell" (6:24; 1.33:1), a quick study of the film's score.
The blandly titled "Cinderella Man Music Featurette" (2:16; 1.33:1) continues the Newman spotlight, although it's rather redundant - why not consolidate these features?
"The Human Face of Depression" (6:03; 1.33:1) finds the filmmakers offering their thoughts on the Great Depression, and how "Cinderella Man" isn't so much about boxing than it is about the era.
I'm out of breath just cataloguing all those extras. Add in the exceptional transfers and quality of the films themselves, and "The Ron Howard Spotlight Collection" would certainly be a shoo-in for the DVD Talk Collector Series - if not for the simple fact that these are all reissues of previously released discs, some of which may already be on your shelf.
On the other hand again, this is a terrific set, four must-own movies, beautifully packaged and priced for value (the MSRP works out to ten bucks per movie). If you haven't yet already purchased these titles separately, this collection is unquestionably Highly Recommended.