I don't know what his real class ranking was in real life, but Ron Howard's telling of the life of James Braddock is a solid, if at times unspectacular, middleweight film. [b]Cinderella Man[/b] has many of the staples of a sports film down pat: the early success, the struggles to make it back and the eventual redemption. The film is an improvement over Howard's last film [b]The Missing[/b], but it also isn't anything to get too excited about.
One of the film's strong points is Russell Crowe, whose portrayal of the rather meekish Braddock helps make the film credible. Whether it's a combination of Howard's camerawork or what, Crowe, who often is quite imposing in his many films, looks diminuitive and slight when going up against his many opponents in the ring. Starting out well enough, Braddock and his family move into a basement apartment during the Great Depression, where they're barely able to stay above water until fights start coming back Braddock's way after breaking his hand.
One of the problems I had with the film was that there was just something about it that distanced me from feeling much of anything for the plight of the Braddocks. I never really felt like there was any real danger in the scenes of familial strife. I think it's possibly the rather plain production values that never really sold me on the timeperiod. Despite the accomplished cinematography by Salvatore Totino that gave some scenes a rich look, the film gives off a pedestrian and standard feel. Many of the film's plot points are very much typical of sports films as well, which also didn't help to really sell me on it.
However, it's the performances, the boxing and the good heart of [b]Cinderella Man[/b] that eventually make it a positive experience. Russell Crowe and Paul Giamatti play very well off of each other and their scenes together (mostly during the boxing matches) are what give the film a dose of energy, humor and life. Renee Zellweger is able as Mae, James' long suffering wife. Zellweger is alright, sporting her hairdoo right out of [b]Chicago[/b]. There has been criticism of the portray of Baer, Braddock's final opponent. While I'm unfamiliar with the real life figure, I do think it a shame that he's portrayed as a rather one-dimensional villain, who doesn't seem to do anything decent until shaking hands at the end.
Ron Howard's direction is of note this time around though. He employs more visual flair than usual with gritty cutaway shots and his fight scenes are accomplished. The final bout between Baer and Braddock makes interesting use of light flashes and half-second freeze frames. After his dismal attempt at a Western with [b]The Missing[/b], Howard makes a solid comeback.
[b]Cinderella Man[/b] wins on a decision from me. The film really has to struggle against an overwhelming feeling of homogenized sameness. The humor is understiated and the most appealing moments come during the engrossing boxing fghts. There's probably going to be a lot of comparisons between this film and [b]Seabiscuit[/b], a film that [b]Cinderella Man[/b] seemed to borrow its ad campaign theme wholesale. I think [b]Seabiscuit [/b]offered more entertainment, while [b]Cinderella Man[/b] provided a boxing film more focused on the sport compared to [b]Million Dollar Baby[/b]. The overly positive praise for this film is still a bit perplexing for me, but I'm glad Howard is back on track.
So I'm reduced to this: watching [b]xXx: State of the Union[/b] for laughs. I don't bother seeing most comedies in movie theaters anymore because of their pedestrian story and execution that doesn't elevate them much beyond the realm of the sitcom. Instead, I'd rather see a movie that has some actual laughs, even if they are completely unintentional, and enough visual effects to make it feel that seeing it in theaters would be worth it.
Providing the yucks this week is [b]xXx: State of the Union[/b], the follow-up to the forgettable 2002 film [b]xXx[/b], which I don't recall very much about. It was the second aborted franchise in a row for the directing/acting team of Rob Cohen and Vin Diesel, who turn over the job to [b]Die Another Day[/b] helmer Lee Tamahori and rapper thespian Ice Cube. The film opens with an attack on what I can only call the xXx HQ in Virginia. Agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) escapes with his Q-esque side kick and immediately comes to the conclusion that they need a new xXx that's even more "outside the box" than extreme sports enthusiast Xander Cage (killed off-screen at the beginning). I don't know how more outside the box you can get, but Darius Stone (Ice Cube) really doesn't seem to be it.
It's eventually revealed that the Secretary of Defense Octavius Deckert (Willem Dafoe and what is it with the Roman names?) is behind the attack and part of his plan to overthrow the president. The commander in chief is played by Peter Strauss, who hawks his comprehensive military spending budget bill like he's selling Miracle-Gro. Anyway, Stone makes a half-hearted attempt at some espionage, most of which falls through leading to a chase scene. It falls to Stone and a gang of car thieves to save the day.
The film is surpremely silly, taking what could be a very disturbing topic a couple years ago and turning it into a live-action cartoon. While it looks like an unconventional plot, it all ends up being rather by-the-numbers. At one point, Stone and Deckert's henchman throw insults back and forth at each other during a tank shootout that essentially boils down to "You stink poopyhead!" "Nuh-uh!" "Uh-huh!" "NUH-UH!" Tamahori shoots a couple money shots of Stone walking in front of an explosion that screams self-indulgent, but hey why not? There's already so much destruction and chaos going on here that goes unnoticed by authorities and the press that taking a stroll past an exploding car and boat seems alright.
The movie goes from one improbable action scene to the next with predictable timing. One such scene has Stone fooling police heat sensors by nuking some meat, leaving them in a tub and hiding in a refridgerator. I really couldn't believe that no one could tell the difference between 20 pounds of food heated probably nowhere near regular body temperature and a man weighing around 200 pounds. Another has a tank firing blind on Congress that just happens to take out the bad guys right when they need to be. It all comes down to a chase on the Presidential Bullet Train (Patent Pending), which makes me wonder why the Gardener-in-Chief took a limo to Congress to begin with.
The acting is wonderfully over the top, although it doesn't end up helping matters at all. Willem Dafoe does his Green Goblin character over again as Deckert, though he's nowhere near as smart since he blabbers about his plan for a coup right in the middle of a dinner party surrounded by a hundred people. The movie needed more Samuel L. Jackson, who spent most of it off screen, and it definitely needed more of him teamed up with Ice Cube. Alas, we don't get that. Ice Cube is alright, but essentially draws a blank on any kind of real character and his attempts at seduction falls flat. Considering the first film, Stone is strangely emasculated, allowed only one intimate session with probably one of the ugliest women I've ever seen in a film: Nona M. Gaye. Seriously, she looked like a man.
[b]xXx: State of the Union[/b] is ultimately another unnecessary sequel to a film that many have already forgotten about. It's goofy and just about any scene with the president was good for a laugh. However, most of its attempts at any social commentary come across muddled (the black hero goes off branded while the white guy gets all the credit). Some of the action was competently done and works primarily as a warm-up for the bigger films coming out later this summer. The ending leaves it open for another sequel where Gibbons wants someone even [i]more[/i] outside the box. I suspect we'll get a cannibal action hero. I would suggest that you in the end wait for video to give this one a try...if at all.
Appearing in numerous incarnations over the years, [b]The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy[/b] finally makes it to the silver screen as a big budget comedy science fiction film. Directed by Garth Jennings in his feature debut, the film is a success, regularly engaging the viewer with quirky visuals and humor.
Even without having read the novels, many of the film's little in-jokes never felt like I was missing out on anything. The story revolves around Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), who discovers his house is set for demolition and his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) is a space alien. What a bummer of a morning. Oh yeah, not to mention the earth is set for demolition too. Yet Ford helps Arthur escape and they get picked up by the Heart of Gold ship, where the homeless human meets the spaced out Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell, firing on all cylinders), who is on the run from his own government for the Hell of it. Tagging along is another human, Trillian (the beautiful Zooey Deschanel), who gives herself the name because it sounds science fictiony. Arthur and Trillian have a history, which makes the galactic adventure socially awkward.
The film, despite costing only around $40 million dollars, more often than not easily competes with other massive blockbusters on a visual level. Several different worlds are depicted here and only one looked somewhat suspect. Otherwise, the sets and visual effects look great. The Vogons also looked rather realistic I have to say, despite the obvious way in which the life-size puppets were created, which only helped add to their charm. The [i]Heart of Gold[/i] is quite simply one of the coolest starships seen in a film. Honestly, I could see it taking a place beside the [i]Millennium Falcon[/i] and the [i]Enterprise-A[/i] as one of most recognizable ships in film.
None of that would matter if there wasn't any fun to be had in the film, but thankfully, the movie employs plenty of humor that ranges from traditional British humor to slapstick to visual gags. The laughs are also consistent and never let up, although there is admittedly a slowdown in the latter half of the film where the plot is allowed to take over. However, the film never loses sight of its humor like many comedies do at their climax. About the most dramatic it gets is with the romantic subplot between Arthur and Trillian. By the way, the climax takes place at a worldbuilding facility, which makes for about the best and most original sequence that I've seen in a film in a very long time.
The acting is pretty good. The narration by Stephen Fry is nicely dry and as mentioned before, Sam Rockwell is great as the brain-drained Beeblebrox. Mos Def is something of a comedic revelation as Ford Prefect, who was consistently funny. Deschanel and Freeman are adequate as the romantic leads. John Malkovich is somewhat wasted in a cameo scene, but his character is certainly unique looking. The direction by Garth Jenning is most assured for this being his first feature. It is a bit reminiscent of Spike Jonze and often times gets quite far out, as when the Improbability Drive turns everyone into puppets and sofas.
[b]The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy[/b] is a welcome entry into the small subgenre of comedic science fiction. It's not as strong as [b]Galaxy Quest[/b] or [b]Ghostbusters[/b], but it's visually attractive and will certainly stand out over time because of its unique humor and being yet another successful adaptation of a popular series of books.
With [b]Crash[/b], writer-director Paul Haggis follows up his Oscar nomination for [b]Million Dollar Baby[/b] with a tale of race in modern Los Angeles. Employing the ensemble drama mode with loads of coincidence, Haggis attempts to look at racism from the many different ethnicities trying to get by in the City of Angels. Unfortunately, using an ensemble leads to the most common problem seen in this genre: superficial characterization in the service of a very self-aware story.
Taking place in the span of two days, we see the fine line between race and class in Los Angeles ranging from the District Attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his wife (Sandra Bullock) down to a pair of cops (Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillipe) on down to a pair of carjackers who take the D.A.'s SUV in the opening moments of the film. Coincidences, mostly in the form of car crashes, keep the characters interacting with each other throughout the film.
Most of the film's conversations revolve entirely around race and that immediately knocks the film down several pegs on the believeablility scale. Not only would most of these characters be nowhere near as blatant about race (I've seen movie KKK members more subtle), but the speechifying makes the characters look more like mouthpieces for different theories on race relations and less like authentic characters. This is often a problem when it comes to films about racism. It can so often be such a subtle problem that many films exaggerate it to deal with it and subsequently shoot themselves in the foot by doing so. [b]Crash[/b] is no different. This film bludgeons you with its theme like a sledgehammer, giving off a pretentious air about it that was a turn-off from the hammy opening line spoken by Don Cheadle's homicide detective.
That opening line about crashing into each other to feel anything comes off as hammy and even moot given the crazy coincidences of everyone meeting. There were times it felt there were only about a dozen people in L.A. or else the city was the size of my old high school. The coincidental nature of the film is a gimmick and the tone of some of the character interactions struck me as odd, almost like it was black comedy in the tradition of [b]Pulp Fiction[/b]. "There's a Chinaman under the truck!" Yuck yuck. Other times, plot twists come off unintentionally funny, such as when Sandra Bullock takes a spill down the stairs. The pacing of these twists also doesn't help much, since the film climaxes long before you think it should. It moves quickly yes, but it also feels like we're just getting brief glimpses.
Compounding the problem of the film's script and structure is a cast of mostly unappealing characters. Despite the film's simplistic statements about the grey nature of people, I just didn't end up caring for many of them. Matt Dillon is pretty good as an angry cop who, in the film's best scene, gropes a woman during a traffic stop. This scene works so well because while there is an undercurrent of race, it's primarily about power. Dillon's character arc is the best of all because Haggis gets the correct combination of right and wrong. While Officer Ryan may have what he feels is a pretty logical problem, it's his attitude that gets in the way.
However, just about all the other characters grate on the nerves. The Iranian store owner is just obnoxious, apparently understanding and speaking English only when the script called for another argument. During a fight with a locksmith, he came across as just plain crazy. When the characters aren't bewildering the audience with their behavior, they're pulling stupid mistakes that annoy. For example, a cop picks up a hitchhiker and then getting hostile with him. There's also a little girl who doesn't believe in monsters under the bed, probably has more street experience than I ever will, yet believes some horse hockey about an invincibility cloak. Another time, police witness a violent carjacking only to go after the driver and then never inquire about the two other guys who disappeared.
People are good and bad. That's essentially what [b]Crash[/b] boils down to (although one could make an argument that the film takes a half-hearted stab at other themes about conditioning and social disconnect). People initially portrayed as good do something that can be seen as bad and once the pattern is recognized, the rest of the film became a grueling task of guess the twist that would give a bad guy a simplistic redemption. Constantly overhead are the strings putting these characters through the ringer, never once allowing a scene to develop with any kind of natural progression. Like when it snows if for no other reason than to give a visual signal that it's the end of the film.
Watching [b]Batman Begins[/b], it didn't feel like it's been 8 years since the last Batman feature...and a decade since the last [i]good [/i]one. Other comicbook franchises have started in the vacuum after this series imploded in 1997, but none of them have had the hold on this non-comickbook fan like Batman has. While it's a prequel and essentially a fresh start after the franchise lost its way, it's the fifth Batman film and shows that this series seems to have the opposite law of the Star Trek movies: it's the odd-numbered films that are good and [b]Batman Begins[/b] is a winner.
The previous films filled in different parts of Bruce Wayne's past, but Christopher Nolan's film expands upon it quite a bit. Christian Bale is excellent as the young Bruce Wayne, itching to pick a fight, but not sure against who exactly. A mysterious man named Ducard (Liam Neesom) offers to help give him focus through training with the League of Shadows. He leaves the group after a pretty violent difference of philosophical opinion and returns to Gotham City with a plan to clean up the city.
The movie builds from a moody and haunting drama into a moody and haunting action film during the film's second half. Wayne becomes increasingly assured as he shapes an alter-ego. At first, he looks like a thief himself as he dons a ski mask to talk to Sergeant Gordon (Gary Oldman). Since Bruce feels that his fear of bats lead to his parents' deaths, it's interesting that he encases himself within the guise of a bat like it's a punishment he imposes on himself. He even confesses that he wants to make the criminal element of Gotham fear it too. Fear is the major theme of the film as both hero and villain use it for their own ends, making the line between Batman and the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) pretty thin.
Gotham City itself is a triumph of production design, special effects and real locations. There are dozens of sets and I was unable to distinguish between real and fake sets. The cinematography is pretty rich. All of the production values seemed to hint at [b]Blade Runner[/b] like has been often cited by director Christopher Nolan as an inspiration. The finale set in the Narrows certainly looks like the kind of urban decay we've seen in the best of film noir. Nolan employs much of his trademark non-linear cutting although it doesn't have as much of an emotional impact as in his previous films. A silent moment where Bruce listens to his father's heart is the best moment in the film.
Comicbook films in 2005 are proving to have the best ensemble casts in many years. First [b]Sin City[/b] and now [b]Batman Begins[/b]. Bale is great as Batman. The deadpan humor is still there, but his Batman can be downright vicious. He has a great supporting cast, most notably Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox and Michael Caine is more prodding as Alfred than Michael Gough's interpretation of the character. Then again, he did play Alfred after more years of experience with Batman. Oldman is a plain old good guy for the first time in quite awhile and it suits him nicely. Cillian Murphy is perfectly slimy as the Scarecrow. His mask presents the film's down-to-earth approach and it's still quite creepy looking compared to the character's appearance in the animated series.
The action is good...when I could see it. It's one of the big drawbacks to the film. At first, it [i]does [/i]make perfect sense as it presents Batman more as an abstract force that no one can really see. But then it gets to be way too much, so much so that sitting here right now I can't remember any one particular move in any of the fight scenes. The train scene and the Batmobile chase were fantastic, but the particular fisticuffs were indistinct. The mood music inherent to a Chris Nolan film is present, but considering it's Hans Zimmer [i]and [/i]James Newton Howard, nothing really stood out until the end credit medley. It might grow on me.
Those were my only quibbles. [b]Batman Begins[/b] otherwise is an unqualified success and easily the equal of Burton's first film. This movie had some of the earliest hype I've ever seen on an internet message forum and I was always a bit curious about why. Then again, I always loved [b]Batman Forever[/b], so take this opinion for what it's worth. At least the end product doesn't suffer after the prolonged hype upon arrival. Bring on the sequel.