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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Cinderella Man (HD DVD)
Cinderella Man (HD DVD)
Universal // PG-13 // May 9, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 15, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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Cinderella Man may be a 'girly' nickname, as one of its characters puts it, but its fairy tale title is a fitting match for this Depression-era boxing drama. Russell Crowe stars as James Braddock, a professional boxer who's not exactly a top draw in the then-immeasurably popular sport, but his talents in the ring still provide him and his family with enough money to live very comfortably. The sucker punch of The Great Depression catches Braddock as off-guard as the rest of the country, and when the film flashes forward another four years, he's lost nearly everything. His family is crammed into a dilapidated, one-room tenement, reduced to feasting on watered-down milk and thin slices of fried bologna. Unable to find other steady work, Braddock continues boxing, fighting through the pain of a shattered wrist. The tenacious fighter is still able to boast that he's never been knocked out, but his unending string of losses is such an embarrassment that the promoters have his license revoked, not even finding Braddock worth his paltry $50 purse. His injuries make prospects of employment even more remote, so he smothers his cast in shoe polish to mask it a bit and stands outside the docks every morning, hoping to be picked as one of that day's longshoremen. Sometimes he is among the handful selected from the dozens who stand outside the gates, but his meager wages aren't enough to pay the bills. When his electricity is disconnected during the freezing winter and his children are shuttled off to other relatives, the proud Braddock is broken, forced to stand in line at public assistance and to beg his former employers for pocket change.

Braddock's manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), offers him an unexpected second chance when a spot on the card needs to be filled on absurdly short notice. It's just meant as a one-time fight, and the promoters aren't interested in a boxer so much as a slab of meat they can prop up in the ring for a couple of rounds. No one -- not even Braddock himself -- has any illusions about his chances, but the prospect of a $250 payday and a final farewell at Madison Square Garden are too irresistable for him to ignore. The reporters are already tossing out quips for the next day's papers before Braddock even steps foot into the ring, but improbably, the half-starved, out of shape fighter emerges victorious. Gould doggedly sticks by his man while lining up more fights, and Braddock's continued success in the ring is a rags-to...well, not riches, exactly...but rags-to-less-tattered-rags fairy tale that gives a glimmer of hope to the impoverished, unemployed millions. The now-beloved Braddock quickly finds that's he's considered a contender for the heavyweight championship of the world, but that involves squaring off against Max Baer (Craig Bierko), the current reigning champ and a man whose brutal punches have cost two of his opponents their lives.

Cinderella Man is an uplifting crowd pleaser, and critics of Ron Howard who accuse the director of churning out oversentimental pap are likely to dismiss his latest effort as more of the same. Although this is a movie that very easily could've fallen into that trap, I didn't find Cinderella Man to feel overly manipulative -- there isn't an overabundance of syrupy strings to punctuate emotion, and that slow-motion final haymaker you're probably expecting in the climax never comes -- and it's almost inarguably Howard's best film of the past ten years. I groaned when I looked at the flipside of the case and saw the 2 hour and 25 minute runtime. Many filmmakers anymore seem to equate "length" with "quality", needlessly and self-indulgently padding out their films by an hour more than is really necessary. Although Cinderella Man probably could be trimmed down somewhat while still packing the same punch, the pacing is remarkably nimble, to the point where it really doesn't seem as if it's weighed down by any filler at all.

Many boxing movies seem to be anchored around a character who's trying to prove something either to himself or to the world at large. Cinderella Man is about a man whose chief motivation is taking care of his family, and that, coupled with a stellar, convincing lead performance by Russell Crowe, just feels more relatable. One scene has the proud boxer, hat in hand, spinning his tale of woe to his old circle of wealthy boxing promoters, begging for enough money to turn on his electricity and bring his children back home. Braddock is devastated at having to sink to those depths, but Crowe plays it perfectly, never overdoing it; even with as jaded as I can be from watching a couple hundred movies a year, it's an emotionally wrenching scene. The impact of those sorts of moments is owed to the strength of the actors' performances, not from the score, heavy-handed direction, or often even the dialogue. There are individual lines of dialogue that seem a little cloying, often from Braddock's thinly-written devoted wife (an underused Renee Zellweger), but the melodrama doesn't ever get eye-rollingly overwrought. The most engaging moments of Cinderella Man, as you might expect, take place in the ring. The fights are brutal, and the camerawork and intricate choreography offer enough shots from Braddock's perspective to make the audience feel as if they're the ones getting belted. I continually found myself cringing, wincing, and shouting during the bouts, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Sure, Cinderella Man doesn't exactly forge new ground. Its story sticks closely to the decline and comeback of a real-life fighter, and although some will complain that this is just another predictable underdog-makes-good tale, there...really aren't too many other ways this could have gone. Cinderella Man plays it fairly safe, and it's better described as an entertaining movie than a great one. Still, call it conventional or a shameless Oscar grab if you want, but it works, and at the end of the day, that's really all that matters. Although I suspect that some of its flaws may prove to be more grating on subsequent viewings, Cinderella Man is a well-crafted and wonderfully cast crowd-pleaser, and Russell Crowe and Paul Giamatti deserve every ounce of critical praise that has been heaped on them for the past year for their work here.

Video: I've read grumblings on several of my home theater forums about how underwhelming this HD DVD looks, and that seems to be because Cinderella Man has a visual style that reflects its setting. The movie takes place in one of the bleakest times in this nation's history, and accordingly, the palette is deliberately muted and leans a little dark, contrast can be flat, long stretches early on don't exhibit much in the way of fine detail, and black levels are middling. Its visual approach is meant to establish a certain mood and tone, and as successful as the film is in that respect, it's not ideal demo material for a home theater. The differences between DVD and HD DVD, more in the earlier moments of the movie than those that follow, may not be compelling enough for owners of previous releases to spend another $20 - $25 to upgrade. Regardless, there's rarely any doubt that this is a high-definition release, judging by the increased crispness and clarity in wider shots and the eye-catching additional sharpness and detail in the less-dimly-lit sequences. The transfer isn't marred by any speckling or other apparent visual flaws, and the authoring is free of any noticeable artifacting or mosquito noise. HD DVD owners whose sole interest is in high-contrast, razor-sharp eye candy may want to turn elsewhere, but Cinderella Man is an attractively shot film that appears to be presented faithfully on this disc.

Cinderella Man is presented in its theatrical scope aspect ratio, and this HD DVD doesn't make use of the Image Constraint Token, meaning it can be viewed in high-definition over component video.

Audio: Cinderella Man includes Dolby Digital Plus tracks and subtitle streams in English, French, and Spanish. The soundtrack is remarkably immersive when the movie calls for it, and the scenes in Madison Square Garden in particular engulf the room with the roar of the crowd and the low-frequency wallop of those left hooks. The film's dialogue comes through cleanly and clearly, and it's never overwhelmed by Thomas Newman's expectedly wonderful score or any other elements in the mix. It's not the sort of hyperaggressive, whiz-bang audio home theater nuts may prefer, but I found it to be a very strong effort.

Supplements: Although this HD DVD doesn't offer anything new, virtually all of the extras from the two-disc collector's edition have been carried over. (Some shamelessly promotional plugs for other products have been ditched, and none of the printed material is offered.)

Perhaps the most interesting of the bunch is a half hour of footage from the Braddock/Baer championship bout, covering the fifteen round fight along with the opening pleasantries and the reading of the decision. It's a little strange watching a boxing match without any commentary (I've gotten too used to the dulcet tones of Jim Lampley and Harold "O-kay, Jim!" Lederman), but this is an awfully neat extra, and its inclusion is greatly appreciated. One of my other favorite extras also revolves around this footage, featuring Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Akiva Goldsman, and author Norman Mailer dissecting and analyzing key moments from the fight.

The lengthy featurette "The Fight Card: Casting Cinderella Man" delves into what drew the cast (and how some of them in turn attracted Ron Howard) to the project as well as what steps they took to realize their characters. It veers a bit too sharply into Mutual Admiration Society territory for my tastes, but it's still worth a look. Howard speaks in more detail about how he wound up helming Cinderella Man in "The Man, The Movie, The Legend: A Filmmaking Journey", an overview of the project's genesis. Several key members of the crew also discuss their contributions to the film's visual style. Some of the same information in this featurette is covered in more detail in the four "Pre-Fight Preparations" featurettes.

Several of Braddock's family members -- most notably Howard, his lone surviving son -- talk about their famous relative and how their skepticism of bringing his story to the screen was allayed in "Jim Braddock: The Friends and Family Behind the Legend". This featurette also includes a good bit of footage of Jim, both in and out of the ring. "Human Face of the Depression" has Ron Howard and Brian Grazer touching on those dark years, although a fair amount of it is spent repeating the events of the movie.

The twenty minute-plus "Lights, Camera, Action: The Fight from Every Angle" isn't quite what it sounds like -- it doesn't make use of DVD's long-ignored multi-angle function but is a detailed featurette on the filmmakers' approach to the fight sequences, from their early DV tests in gyms to the meticulous choreography of the climactic bout. Thomas Newman's score inspires two featurettes that run eight and a half minutes in total, although the meat is all in the first clip, and the second doesn't amount to much more than an extended commercial for the soundtrack. Boxing consultant Angelo Dundee also gets a few minutes in the spotlight with a featurette covering his work with Russell Crowe in Australia, the actor's rigorous training, and some of his ringside contributions during filming. The only widescreen-enhanced extra is "Russell Crowe's Personal Journey", an intimate diary documenting his preparation for the shoot.

Aside from the slew of featurettes, there are also a couple of other DVD mainstays, including an extensive set of deleted scenes and three audio commentaries. Director Ron Howard and writers Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman each get their own commentary track, but two and a half hours is an awful long time for any one man to talk, and I'm left thinking that cramming them all into one booth or at least editing the tracks together may have been a better approach. It seems especially redundant when a pretty substantial amount of the information on each track spills over into the others, and Goldsman in particular has a tough time filling his commentary with more than narration or lengthy gaps of silence. I didn't successfully make it through any of the commentaries (listening to all of them demands the equivalent of nearly an entire workday), but Ron Howard's struck me as the most interesting and comprehensive of the three from my sampling.

The 36 minutes or so of deleted and extended scenes are introduced with a brief (but annoyingly unskippable) introduction by Ron Howard, who contributes optional audio commentary tersely detailing why they were trimmed out of the film. Some paint a more detailed picture of the Depression and the blows it delivered to Jim, while others further flesh out Jim's family. These scenes provide a little extra color, but they're ultimately inessential and were deservedly cut. The last of the extras is a several minute long photo montage.

Conclusion: I'm sure there's a very vocal contingent out there determined to shrug off Cinderella Man as populist Oscar bait, but I freely admit to being won over by the film. No, it's not perfect or stunningly original, but this skillfully acted feel-good drama is still one of the more compelling HD DVDs available at the moment. Not only does this release offer all of the bells and whistles from the now-out of print collector's edition DVD, repetitive though they may be at times, it does so at a lower price. Highly Recommended.

Please note that the images in this review are promotional stills lifted from the movie's official website. They're just meant to be eye candy and aren't necessarily indicative of the way this HD DVD looks.
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