RIORI Presents Installment #186: Ron Howard’s “Cinderella Man” (2005)



The Players…

Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Bruce McGill, Paddy Considine, Craig Bierko and naturally Clint Howard somewhere in the mix.


The Basics…

The Great Depression hit America hard, but determined albeit washed-up boxer James J Braddock hit back harder.

After suffering a career-ending injury in the ring, not to mention the nation’s economy going to hell, James still pressed on to keep his family together and well away from Hooverville. Of course it was a struggle, especially when it came to finding dependable work with a bum wrist, but James had weathered trouble before he was rich and famous. Now he’s going to have to start over. No depression of any kind will keep him from taking care of his family. He’s waiting for the next round.

It’s kind of funny, however, that a streak of bad luck could sometimes lead to a “lucky break,” even if in a left-handed sort of way.


The Rant…

It’s been said that Ron Howard is unique in the pantheon of great directors. He makes movies that are crowd pleasers as well as critical darlings. It doesn’t really come as much of a surprise really. Howard has been on sound stages ever since he played little Opie on The Andy Griffith Show (now try to get that theme song out of your head) and later as average Joe High School Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. He was raised in front of the camera with his baby bro Clint under the watchful eye of their character actor dad Rance. It was a sort of family industry. So after being in front of the camera for years, it came as not much of a surprise that Ronnie wanted to get in on some movie action. With his CV, Howard was more than up to the challenge.

Howard’s breakthrough film Splash was a hit. I caught it at the drive-in when I was kid where I got to see a young Tom Hanks flexing his comic chops. I didn’t get the whole art and craft of filmmaking when I was 8, but I knew what I liked and I liked Tom Hanks. He was silly. The rest of America felt that way, too and so the guy’s star rose high enough to eventually team up with a well-seasoned Howard a decade later to deliver Apollo 13. Both movies were big treats and critical smashes. The left-of-center fairy tale romance that was Splash and the nail-biting adventure in NASA history that was Apollo 13 both had something going for them, and it wasn’t Hanks. Okay, it wasn’t just Hanks.

Let’s reel back a bit. Splash was an auspicious start for a director to be noticed. It helped, no doubt, Howard’s education forged in TV and film for decades offered perspective. With that backlog, Ron’s created a bag of tricks to make most of his films the Pied Piper to America’s willing audience. A lot of great directors have one. It’s called their signature. You know when you’re watching a Scorsese film (or a Kubrick, Hitchcock, Burton or Carpenter film) before you read the credits. Howard has a signature: quality. Regardless of the story, casting, staging, lighting, choreography or stubborn prima donnas, he more times than not makes a movie that is satisfying. Fleshed out, driven of purpose and above all pleasing to the eye. Many great directors achieve these things, but Howard manages to always execute his films with warmth. That’s the ticket, that’s his signature.

Sidebar: It’s been said that Howard is the model to which all child actors should aspire. Ron has no drug rap, no criminal record, an all around nice guy, caring dad with his daughter Bryce making her own splash in Hollywood, and a guy driven of purpose: to make good movies for everyone to enjoy, audiences and critics alike. However I’d like to believe to former trumps the latter. Let’s face facts: Howard’s films are to simply be enjoyed. Just sayin’.

Howard’s covered a lot of thematic territory over the past forty years. He’s done romance (the aforementioned Splash), comedy (Parenthood), fantasy (Willow), action (Backdraft), thriller (Ransom), biopic (Pavarotti) and sci-fi (Cocoon). All of them with varying degrees of success, thanks mostly to the skill of delivering warmth. However one genre that has never betrayed Howard’s vision is that of historical drama. Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon, A Beautiful Mind, Far And Away and this week’s victim. Granted not all of these films have been great, nor exactly warm, but they were executed well and very shrewdly.

This is the part where the rant ceases being a Hallmark card.

Here’s what I mean by Howard being shrewd regarding those dramas. Being shrewd is the antithesis of being warm. From my understanding Howard stays faithful to the history of the story but also knows when to deviate from fact to make better fiction. It’s like what that oft-misquoted quote is from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. I’ll maul it a bit more here: “When the legend is better than the facts, print the legend!” He’s been known to do some sweetening with his historical dramas, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when done right. Heck, a lot of good directors deviate from the story for a better film (EG: Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is both a watered down and over the top reinterpretation of Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness). Often that’s how it goes down. On occasions, however translating the legend gets clunky (check out the U-571 installment, for example). Shoehorning. Not warm, neither shrewd. Not in Howard’s bailiwick.

Being forewarned what follows are spoilers. Kinda. The difference between spoiling and clarifying depends on which story you stumbled onto first: the movie or the source. Avert your eyes if you must, but there’ll be no blue book waiting after this history lesson. The following may, may be considered spoilers, but not in the sense that I am giving away any crucial info to ruin your day. I’m divulging the mundane, historical record that got tweaked in contrast for a juicier filmgoing experience. Now shaddap and watch this filmstrip.

*raps chalkboard with pointer*

Settle down. And who stole my goddam apple?

All right then.

Jim Lovell did not say, “Houston, we have a problem” in Apollo 13. In reality it was, “Houston, there is a problem.” The tweaking of the line made it more personal, y’know? More urgent. Mathematician John Nash’s long-suffering wife Alicia stood by him as he wrestled with schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind. In reality she divorced him unable to endure the stress of it all (they later reconciled and John lived as her boarder for the rest of his days. They had no kids. That and the whole pen exchange was totally made up). Holding it all together was the underlying story in the movie, and what can be accomplished if you keep plugging away. Divorce is the antithesis of that, head against the wall. Nixon admitted he was involved in a cover up, not a victim of one. Cinderella Man got its fair share of massaging also.

Still with me? Good. Moving on.

It’s a tricky thing. There’s always that whole thing about creative license balancing the historical record. Let’s face facts, most movie goers who like biopics could give two sh*ts about the Wikipedia page. They want to be entertained, rightly so and have never read a Marvel comic book in their lives (or a book at all). The historical facts attached to/inspiring the movie only really apply to the curious, and curious I am. Curious enough to share some Cinderella Man factoids. Not to decry Howard’s direction. Quite the contrary. How he was cagey in tweaking just the right “facts” to deliver a better movie. One that draws you in. This is important. Duh.

Here’s the story of Cinderella Man. The historical record is telling. Yes, Braddock revived his boxing career and won the Heavyweight Title against Max Baer in 1935. Okay. Baer was never the assh*le he was portrayed be in the movie. Sure, he was a rock star boxer, but still a professional athlete. When he knocked out and ultimately killed his opponent, Baer was very distraught by the accidental death. He even gave up boxing for a while. When returning to the ring before the title bout, Baer contacted Braddock of putting the championship fight on hold due to Baer’s fears, worry and knowing Braddock was no longer in his prime.

That Max Baer makes for a sh*tty villain. “Pussy” may be a better word. But there are no “villains” in boxing. This wasn’t the WWE. Baer was not Braddock’s nemesis, he was his opponent. But a movie about a comeback kid needs an antagonist. Bingo, Baer the pompous asshat was borne, and someone to boo at and call a bum or palooka or whatever pussy terms they used back in the day. Conflict is what drives a story and earns an audience. Being a good sport on the losing end does not. Howard knew this, and we—I—bit.

That’s just a small sample of Howard’s shrewdness when it comes to tweaking the facts to promote the legend. It’s safe for me to assume/speak for all of you that history can be pretty boring. It’s been said that the victors write the history, and I believe there are very few accurate stories in history that are exciting as the legends. Good examples? There were not just three hundred Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae. Leonidas and his army had scores of vassals, squires, cheerleaders, caterers, etc to get the job done. Marie Antionette was not so flippant as so suggest the hungry Parisians without access to bread should eat cake instead. In truth the doomed lady-in-waiting allegedly declared, “Let them eat the crusts (from the paté).” Yeah, just as insensitive (if not more so) but not as tantalizing as cake. Einstein never defined insanity. The source is attributed to part of the Narcotics Anonymous manifesto dating back to the early 1980s. Guess Einstein was sexier.

You follow? With historical drama, you gotta spin to sell it, but it has to be the right kind of spin. The record is almost always a straight line. Facts don’t entice as much as tears in the fabric do. A director needs a little wiggle room (read: creative license) to make the facts read out like a legend. People like to believe in legends, get behind them, wish they were the real thing. Howard got that, which is why Apollo 13 was a summer blockbuster as well as Oscar fodder.

If we’re talking spin, that’s kinda like how James J Braddock’s story dropped. And rose up.


The Story…

In the mid-1920’s “The Bulldog Of Bergen,” James J Braddock (Crowe) was the toast of Heavyweight Championship Boxing. Wiry, fast and could take a licking and keep on hitting. He had it all. Fame. Fortune. His devoted wife Mae (Zellweger) and three wonderful kids at his side. A nice house in Jersey, money in the bank, and James on the up and up in practicing the “sweet science.” The fortunes a wishful man dreams about.

That was all before the Great Depression hit, financially ruining James’ family. Not to mention his career. The Braddocks sold virtually everything to survive, including their liquid income, solid income and family home. Matches dried up. James was feeling the strain, physically, emotionally and most of all paternally. It was in his final fight he broke his right wrist, effectively ending his career. So much promise broken by so much pressure. All of it textbook tragic.

Years later, James is pulling itinerant work at the docks, One afternoon he’s visited by his old friend and trainer Joe Gould (Giamatti). Despite James being cut loose years ago from the boxing commission, Joe’s wrestled up a bout for James to score some quick cash. That’s what friends do in hard time. The opponent is just some chump, but the kitty is a healthy $250. James says he’ll give it shot hoping for some groceries for the next month or so. There are four mouths to feed. As well as a dream deferred.

Of such humble beginnings—or second chances—a legend can be borne. Again.


The Breakdown…

Cinderella Man may not be Ron Howard’s best movie, or the most praised, but it is the probably the most quintessential.

All the director’s skills are on naked display here, but nothing is overplayed. Man never wears out its welcome. There have been oodles of historical dramas that freely overplayed their hands, even those made by great directors. Kubrick’s Spartacus, with its soap opera trifecta of Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons (no, not that one) and Tony Curtis. Zwick’s Civil War masterpiece Glory that—how can I say this?—seemed more about alienation than honor at times. Mank’s Cleopatra, the end.

Man never hammers down how downtrodden and maudlin Crowe’s Braddock was. As of this installment Cinderella Man dropped in 2005, 15 years ago. Those in the know have heard that Crowe can have quite the temper. I’m not sure if this is true. Back in the years he could do know wrong in the early aughts, his onscreen personas overrode any offscreen antics. As I like to way too many times say never confuse the artist with the art. Considering here with Man, whatever hothead Crowe is on his days off, that rumor only enhances his performance as Braddock here.

Crowe has an ability to be earnest, whichever role he’s chosen (since LA Confidential. We’ll ignore Romper Stomper and especially Virtuosity today) and that’s a key aspect of his Braddock. He does eager and determined well in equal doses, most likely like any real working Joe in those times; reality versus finality. Despite his reputation, Crowe’s Braddock is rather nondescript after the cold open. We get the underdog treatment, but Howard being shrewd he pulls back the melodrama just enough to educate us that, yes, James is not totally out, but a guy who is down on his luck. And there was a great deal of luck to be down on in the Braddock household. He’s just doing what to do to get by with his family. It felt like polished cast James lugged was a kind of albatross, a reminder of what went wrong. We’ve all been there (and many are still there, thank you COVID) asking “What did I do to…?B

Between Crowe’s earnest performance and Howard knowing how to spin a yarn, our hero is neither a sad sack nor bitter. Like I said determined, as well as unsure of himself after such a crushing loss of his career and his home. Vulnerability; it works every time. Crowe’s roles have been rough and tumble for years, only hinting at enough vulernabilty to make us get behind him. Recalling everyone’s fave boxing story to glory RockyMan is unabashedly romantic, and also it’s the most likable Crowe has even been as an actor, and that’s saying something. No tossed phones nothing.

Crowe’s foil Zellweger was an odd casting choice at first. She seemed somewhat out of place. Her Mae was a little too precious, however still held enough on her own. Odd casting call for the first act, but her performance as Mae does grow on you. I could think of a dozen other actresses to play Mae (oddly enough Lizzy Caplan topped my list, with Emily Blunt a close second. Must be the hair), however with time and how the plot unwound I kinda got why Miz Renee got picked. Her character unfolds gradually over the three acts, like in Shakespeare but written by Ring Lardner. Mae knows more about what’s unfolding before James, or we do. The undercurrent, the tension of what is truly at stake with James’ second chance—earning more money at the risk of his own safety—is a proud and well presented Howard touch regarding family being stronger together than apart (EG: having the kids go stay with Mae’s sister “for a bit” is not an option in the Braddock home). You can see this tack in some of Howard’s other movies, like Apollo 13 or even Cocoon and Willow. This is technically a family film, but not in Disney fashion. Overall, Zellweger had the good head on her shoulders and proved to be more than just a concerned housewife. I was surprised.

The last leg of this troika is Giamatti’s Joe Gould, the Dr McCoy of the central players. Let me get this out front: I love Giamatti. He’s in the same caliber of the late, great Sean Connery. Meaning Paul’s been in a lot of questionable films, but he’s always good. I love his “gift for gab” in all his roles, and his Joe Gould is no exception. Probably the best role he got to demonstrate his verbiage. His motormouth delivery as a huckster and trying to be a decent, well, “Joe” in hard times when his friend James is covered in existential mud. If you consider it, Joe was James’ saving grace and unflappable in his ability to get back into the ring. James was under confident, Mae was scared and Joe was the attaboy huckster. I like that kind of graceful comic relief. Sometimes we all need a buddy without realizing it, especially from a familiar well that’s always there to dip in.

Okay. Let’s talk nuts and bolts.

Howard is notorious for establishing the ideal settings for his stories. Among location directors, scenarists, second units and/or very good sound staging he gets the job done, and the dreary world of Man is no exception. The period pieces are great, doubtless enhanced with tasteful CGI. Howard’s Great Depression here is repression, opression. The ultimate gambit of the haves being so ignored that the downtrodden are everyone’s out for themselves. The first act of Man is about futility and desperate measures, all sepia toned and glaring, almost like foreshadowing to James’ downfall.

It’s all gradual. It’s enticing you. It’s enlightening. It’s the hook. Like Crowe’s earnest Braddock, Howard lures you in with atmosphere and especially scenery. In the second act—after Braddock got his second chance and scored—the sepia tones gave way to sharper hues, hinting at he future. The fog is lifting. James won a few matches. Earned money to pay the bills. Some sunshine of the man’s back. And notice how the boxing audience gradually gets larger and larger. Another Howard trick: get behind the hero, be a part of the moment. I was.

Now the meat of the matter, the Maguffin. The boxing scenes. Granted we never see James punch frozen cattle carcasses, but the mounting matches fit that bill. Those near knuckle bouts were exciting and visceral, and I was never into boxing save Nintendo’s “Punch Out!” (and I never won). I sure as sh*t got amped watching these bouts, especially for the amazing editing and clever use of effects. Meaning when James shattered his wrist in his “last bout” we got an azure X-ray snap of the injury. Later on in the comeback fights, we get the cerulean flashes every time James takes a hit, and comes blinding with the final bout. It’s almost overwhelming, the hurt, the hurt, the hurt. But as fans we know why and who Braddock is: a fighter, but not for the purse. Not for milk. Not to be defeated.

Yes, the fighting scenes were exhilarating, and the tender moments of family and just getting by were kindly sentimental but never schmaltzy. The balance between pathos and desperate struggle was neatly packaged making for great tension. Another aspect of this balance was the pacing, my pissy muse. Man had a feeling of a classic three act play, where everything lined up just right to tell the narrative. Now not everyone knew the history of James Braddock like we did the failed mission of Apollo 13 where it was all over the TV news back in 1970. Braddock’s story was far more prosaic that the misadventures of astronauts. That was the key to Man’s simple wonder. It’s a underdog/comeback story with a nice, neat gift-wrapped happy ending standing above romanticizing the past and plunking the right amount of history into the story to make Crowe’s Braddock seem like a neighbor. That is what makes a shrewd director great. Focus on the story and don’t forget who you’re sharing it with.

Man had just the right amount of melodrama, action and bending the truth to be a real crowd pleaser. I sure was pleased, and quite satisfied. Good story, good execution. The most straightforward Ron Howard film ever. And in these times of bloated biopics, where the lead is granted to win the Oscar, it’s a relief to have a very good film win zilch.

“I want to go out like a champion. I want to be carried out.”

Time to throw in the towel. Ha.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? An absolute rent it. You’ve probably figured out when the installment is this sober (even if I wasn’t) I loved the movie. I scored a hard copy off eBay. Nuff said.


The Musings…

  • The milk thing.
  • “I got in a fight…”
  • For a Kiwi, Crowe does a good Joisey accent.
  • “Hey Joe, this is Joisey.” See?
  • Lotta good accents here.
  • “Welcome to Noo Yawk.”
  • I’ll stop now.
  • “I won.” Mug. Delightful.
  • The empty apartment thing.
  • “We all know the name of the game, and it sure as hell ain’t pugilism.”
  • Was there some sort of Chariots Of Fire, Jew versus Catholic undercurrent going on? Well, Braddock did use the orthodox position and that is the greatest Dad joke about religion and boxing you will ever read today.
  • “I think I can go a few rounds with a dancing Baer.”
  • The good luck handshake thing.
  • “Milk.”

The Next Time…

Another historical drama! Cool! This time we follow Charlie Hunnam deep into the Amazon searching for The Lost City Of Z! Catch it!


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 97: Taylor Hackford’s “Proof Of Life” (2000)



The Players…

Meg Ryan, Russell Crowe, David Morse, David Caruso and Pamela Reed, with Anthony Heald, Gottfried John and Michael Kitchen.


The Story…

When Alice’s architect husband Peter goes missing into the dense canopy of the Teclan jungle, it’s up to special agent Terry Thorn to get him back alive.

Funny thing is the revolutionaries who abducted Peter want him to remain alive. Good business sense, as all human trafficking blueprints flow.

Can Thorn locate the waylaid Peter in time and fend off advances from desperate housewife Alice?

Stay tuned!


The Rant…

There are a lot of ugly words in the English language. Dismemberment. Murder. Moist. A panoply of them. Being once an English major I too gathered words that would not be invited to my Friends list: Suture. Lonely. Lesion. Hangnail. Literally. All those words describe nasty ideas and poor grammar, and all describe harm in some fashion (including that overused and incorrectly applied adverb, Millennials). Stuff that bums us out an makes us cringe, images of suffering and pain and loss cloud our minds when we hear them.

On the flip side there is a more insidious nature of our emotions being triggered by hear the bad stuff above. Selfishness, another ugly word, crosses our minds:

“Glad it’s not me.”

That being said another nasty term that clouds my brain with fear and loathing (and not just relevant to this installment): kidnap. Separation anxiety in its fullest form. Stolen. Taken away from your life and loved ones, only to become an object, some poker chip by the guy who demands a ransom. It’s akin to slavery; people are not products, and therefore are not meant to be bought and sold. The 13th Amendment has something to say about that skin trade.

Humans dislike captivity. Scratch that. They f*cking hate it. That’s why cons pulling hard time are so grumpy. No Internet, no GrubHub but lots of potential sodomy (traveling tip: soap on a rope). Humans don’t want to feel caged, lost, helpless, alone and deal with pesky hangnails. It’s terrifying, and kidnapping is a bit more brutal than, oh, getting lost in the mall when you were 6, mom and dad seemingly evaporating from existence. No. When you are spirited away by some hooligan low on cash you become a thing. It doesn’t truly matter in such a circumstance that you have a family, you have friends, you have a mortgage and a kid and a dental plan and the next season of Stranger Things to binge on. You are now a commodity. Get used to it. Ugly.

Now you may be thinking, “Hey blogger, what do you know about kidnapping? Were you ever kidnapped? And what’s with all those hangnails? You been juggling potato peelers?”

Actually, yes. Had a lot of pomme gratin to fuss with at work. And shut up. No, I was never abducted. Getting lost driving when the reception kacks out and Google Maps takes a walk makes me worried. Zip ties around my wrists, gagged and a hood over my head sounds like no garden party to me. S&M party maybe, but there’s usually controlled substances involved. Cold oatmeal every noon while rotting in a bamboo cage doesn’t sound very fun.

But I know about getting lost, and I don’t just mean not knowing where you are. We’ve all been lost in that context at least once. Not knowing where you is part of that equation, but not unlike all those cancerous and cuticle terms I mentioned above, being lost is harmful. Like chain lightning all sorts of nasty feelings bombard your brain and push it into panic mode. The greatest fear is that of the unknown, and being yanked out of your comfortable routine into a dark world not of your making, well, the animal inside comes to the fore. Mainly pain and panic.

Consider any and all prominent kidnapping stories ever in the media. Do they ever end well? Even at rescue there is shock and awe and fear and what the crap? Elian Gonzalez in the iconic closet photo with the muzzle of a gun in his face. Patty Hearst—supposedly brainwashed—brandishing a gun during a bank robbery for the Symbianese (whoever they were) on security camera. And there’s that nasty ending to the Lindburgh baby abduction. Despite Argo got it mostly right, those American diplomats did not appear happy when they set foot back on American soil. They looked like foreigners.

Kidnap is a dirty word. Lost is a dirty word. As is alone, isolated and trapped. Rips humanity from you. Sounds dramatic, a bit too much? Maybe, but recall that “glad it’s not me” comment? Well, granted the topic of kidnapping is hardly water cooler conversation, but the notion of being marooned, emotionally and physically? Like when the reception craps out, how vulnerable common folks can be caught unawares by desperate forces can be felt and more often than not tap a basal fear. Glad it’s not me is a surface touch, not unlike one’s reaction to that last snap of Elian. In a breath later:

“That could have been me.”

Shudder. Then back to the cubicle.

We all love the car wreck, so long as we weren’t in the damned thing. And just like the traffic slowing to a dead crawl, gradually glancing at the scene you’re glad it wasn’t you. But there is a corollary to your relief: someone knew the person in that car, and won’t know the difference between a fatality or a trip to the ER.

That could be me. I could be gone. I could be there. I’m glad I’m here. Otherwise, just like lesions, hangnails and kidnappings you just as quickly—perhaps unbeknownst to your loved ones—could end up…gone.

Ugly…


The country of Tecala is in trouble, from within and without. If the ineffectual government is unable to quell the yelling of the ELT rebels, the country’s infrastructure is a mess, especially managing its natural resources. That’s where Peter (Morse) and Alice (Ryan) have moved to Tecala. It may prove to be another success story in Peter’s CV.

You see, the man has built up quite the reputation as an architect; a dambuilder that has trotted the globe (with his long-suffering wife in tow) coaxing wells and moving rivers so the local can have access to fresh water. Yes, he’s made quite a name for himself. However now residing in Tecala, his successes have made him marked man.

The ELT fund their little revolution via ransoms. Human trafficking. Kidnapping. They’ve found an ideal mark in Peter, someone who could be pawn in their game. He’s nabbed and spirited away to their camp, and the demands come rolling in.

Alice is at her wits end. Enter Terry Thorn (Crowe), a former Aussie special agent adept in these kind of circumstances. The Bowman’s new home becomes ground zero for fielding phonecall demands, going into the field and picking off the testy rebels. She sees Terry as the man Peter should be: take charge, not negotiate, let alone kiss ass and suck up to rules that demand snipping a lot of red tape.

Alice demands action. First to let Terry do his job, then maybe get Peter back alive.

Maybe, on both counts…


I read on AllMovie that Proof Of Life was a sort of return to form for director Hackford. The man made his name with films like An Officer And A Gentleman and Against All Odds portraying relationships in peril. Bad love, failing marriages, misguided coupling, etc. Desperation is his muse. Proof is classic Hackford, but don’t call it a comeback. Tension and anger and the futility of living is his stock in trade, with a coda of possible grace. His stuff keeps you rubbing your (emotional) sweaty palms. True, his stuff may come perilously close to soap opera territory, but a solid script often elevates the drama to cinematic satisfaction.

*crickets*

Yeah. Not here. Sorry.

You might have forgotten how preachy Hackford can get without a well fleshed-out script keeping his ire in check. I’ve seen a lot of Hackford’s films, and there’s always some message and/or social commentary lurking behind the clackboard. Usually such doggerel is kept in check by an aforementoned solid story, but when the story is too broad Hackford has a field day. Put Officer against Bound By Honor? We needed more Lou Gosset. And a kick to the crotch.

Metaphors aside Proof needed such a kick. In spite of Proof‘s dire content there’s a serious lack of necessary urgency demanded by stories like this one. Most of the second act, where Terry in full is introduced, is bookended by a lot of exposition. Proof was cut in 2000, back when Crowe was riding high from his lead in Gladiator, back when he was likable, bankable and not hurling phones. Crowe got labelled as an action hero, albeit a surly one, His presence as special agent dispatching the baddies with extremely extreme prejudice seemed a natural character extension of a desperate Roman general exiled to gladiatorial combat. A special ops guy? Skilled in hostage negotiation? How could that fail?

Plenty. Denude Crowe of his ballsy balls and his signature grimace and he’s a bureaucrat. With access to firearms. When he needs them. And when David Caruso goads him, like some bully’s toady, champing at the bit to get his old partner back into the fray.

To whit I ask: why? This is the primary problem I sniffed at in the first act. Sure, Terry was well-equipped to head the Bowman abduction case, but I never found it clear why he was the guy to spearhead the hunt. And with all dramas, the protag usually gets emotionally invested in his mission. For two thirds of the film Terry is rote. Apart from a skirmish scene in the second act, Terry is inert. Another hostage negotiation, another day at the office. What’s for dinner?

So there. We have weak tension here, despite the film’s plotting. At least by the second act, which became a crucial line of demarcation by my viewing; for such and intense story there is a surprising lack of urgency. And even after Proof grinds into second gear, Peter’s abduction seems even less urgent than Terry dicking around with his contacts. That and dealing with Meg Ryan making goo-goo eyes at him, and she comes across as all at sea with this drama (BTW, the romantic element was totally unnecessary and pointless). Ryan is a lead in a cameo role. I wished Oliver Reed had more unnecessary screen time.

I found the acting between the leads clumsy and without chemistry. Their banter was a slog, and muddied up an already muddy story. To be fair, Hackford’s best work has always been gratingly edgy, but his edges are all square here, like he was trying to “play it safe” against the then hot topic of exile and abduction in the shadow of the Gonzalez case. The kid was dragged back to Cuba in June of 2000. Proof dropped in December of the same year. I doubt one did not inform the other. Play on a fresh media storm that may be translated to film? Been done before. But why does everything in Proof seems rote, safe? Hackford has never been one to flinch, and his social commentary has always been naked. But never paint by numbers. I was bored and cheated here. We needed more boom with the subject matter, less bust.

Of course, all was not lost in Tecala. Besides the editing being very good, Morse was very engaging as captive Peter. He’s always had a stiff presence, Not really a bad thing; precious few actors can make bland so endearing. I’ve appreciated Morse all the way back to his salad days as Dr “Boomer” Morrison on St Elsewhere. He made being bland interesting, which makes him so protean. You’d never finger him  out as a perp in a police lineup. He’s everyman, minus leading male. That’s an asset, and why really good character actors succeed. As it’s been incorrectly said in writing, make your characters likable. Wrong. Make them interesting. Morse as Peter was interesting by being bland and relatable. True most of us have never tasted the hell of forced captivity, but Morse well-illustrated the “glad it’s not me” edict. Big ups to Morse.

This movie was all about distance. Kidnapping, captivity, wrenched out of the nest, distance. As Thorn is active, Peter is passive. And back and forth, never really connecting. That may be just a machination of the story, but what went down in the third act should’ve informed the first two acts: action. Swift and deliberate. There’s a worldbuilder gone asunder! Heavy stakes. Instead we get a smarmy Caruso (is there any other kind?) trying to prod uber-agent Thorn to pick up a rifle again and pick off brown people for the sake of picking off brown people. Sure, socio-politcal commentary. Sure, hostage negotiations. Sure, government intrigue. Sure, needless goo-goo eyes. If indeed Proof was Hackford’s return to form, he should’ve kept the box top in plain sight when assembling the jigsaw puzzle. Regarding Officer and Odds, Hackford seemed to opt to distance himself from his muse. Proof was rote, dull for too long and if any social commentary was to be made we could’ve all watched CNN for two-plus hours for far-removed storm and stress in small countries populated with subjugated brown people.

Might be more urgent. You might feel about all such stuff, “Glad…”

Ugly.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. You want a solid kidnap flick? Watch Jack Lemmon sweat in Missing. Proof just lets you sweat in desperation to “get on with it!”


Stray Observations…

  • “I’m on my way to the airport.”
  • Morse’s dye job fools no one, especially since he’s been totally bald since 12 Monkeys. And that wig wasn’t any better. Just sayin’.
  • “I am not getting pregnant again in the Third World.” Wait, what?
  • You know, I’m getting real tired of seeing terrorists portrayed as fanatical savages…kinda like the Minutemen were. Ouch.
  • “What kind of stress are we talking about?”
  • Who’s really corrupted here?
  • “Your toilet.” Yes, yes indeed.
  • Oh sh*t. Claymore.
  • “You never get a pretty picture, okay?”
  • Why is Caruso so good at being slimy?
  • “These pigs are lucky to have you.” Zing!
  • A corollary: precious few “terrorists” have been portrayed as non-jokes in old Hollywierd. The Hurt Locker, Three Kings and Munich portray the other as adversaries, not enemies. Chew on that.
  • “Nothing.”
  • The 13th Amendment, Section 1: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Since Tecala doesn’t exist, well…
  • “That was fun.” “Yeah!”

Next Installment…

All aboard the Pineapple Express! Next stop…uh…I fergot…


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 7: Zack Snyder’s “Man Of Steel” (2013)


ManofSteelFinalPoster


The Players…

Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane.


The Story…

In yet another revival (and by revival we mean crossed-fingers in hope of keeping a possible cash cow of a franchise aloft) of the Superman legend, a wayfaring Clark Kent must keep his alien origins and fantastic powers hidden from the world at large. But when the nefarious General Zod plans to conquer Earth…well, you know.


The Rant…

Hmm. According to my records, this would be the third Zack Snyder film to go under the microscope here at RIORI. Also, this would also be one of several (and several more in my Netflix queue) movies based on comic books to go under the aforementioned lens o’ snark. I don’t know if it’s too soon to spot patterns here, but on both points, it seems rather suspect Zack keeps crossing my path. I’ll let you know more when my tests get back from the lab (no, not those tests. Jeez).

Something else I feel I should mention which is kinda off track. I’ve been getting a bit of flack about maintaining this weblog; about keeping the posts coming at a regular rate. Not to whine, but I have a job with a ridiculous schedule, which does not lend itself much time to sit down and actually watch these darned films. I usually get up at the ass-crack of dawn every morning and it’s only late at at night that I can wrangle the TV away from my family, let alone on a weekend for an evening’s viewing (I know I could just stream them on my iPad, but I got a big-ass TV with surround sound, so nyah). I’m tryin’ okay? Feel free to leave any comments behind to smack my wrist.

Moving on…

Why is it such a hit-or-miss prospect with comic book movies? Also, since the turn of the century, why weren’t more comic book movies made before? I know, I know. We had Richard Donner’s take on Superman and Tim Burton’s gothic Batman films, but that was it for over 20 years. Now since 2000, we’ve been inundated with the lot of ‘em. Took a while. You’d think they’d be naturals for cinema; they’re already storyboarded for pity’s sake. Some would argue that the special effects required for today’s comic book movies just weren’t available back then, but I think that’s weak sauce. Like I said, the early Superman and Batman films did just fine. Maybe mainstream audiences would turn their nose up at such a niche market? Not if it was marketed right, and most were. Maybe it was finding the right actors? That’s what casting agents are for, and to continually hammer this nail: Michael Keaton as Batman? Well, yeah.

I think Richard Donner had a stroke of genius in casting Christopher Reeve as the Caped One. An unknown actor who was mostly skilled in soap operas took to the skies with flourish and humor (and what else are superhero films but gussied up sci-fi melodramas?). Some of the more plausible comic book heroes were portrayed by actors who weren’t necessarily household names at the time (i.e.: Hugh Jackman, Tobey Maguire, Brandon Routh, etc.) as opposed to big name stars (I’m looking at you Affleck). When you cast an unknown, there are no preconceived notions about how the actor acts. It’s a clean slate. It works doubly so when the actor is put to task to portray an already established character, like Superman.

Henry Cavill did so. But quite left of center. More of that later. This was a Zack Snyder film after all, so what would you expect?

There’s no need to get into the movie’s baseline. We get it. Dying planet. Lost civilization. Last hope. Earth bound. Kind couple. Great power. Humanity lessons. Alien origin. Learn, adapt, overcome. Behold, Superman. Now let’s get onto the meat.

I’m not going to overview the story here. It’s not done out of contempt, believe me. It’s just that, like with my critique of Superman Returns, the folderol of explaining the history of Superman is pretty superfluous. If you’ve been extant for the past 75 years, you know who Superman is. Now let’s get on to it.

Man Of Steel is at heart an existential drama. For 75% of the movie, we get to mull over who Superman is when he’s decidedly not Superman. Henry Cavill, like Brandon Routh is an extraordinary find. An actor devoid of a complex résumé to pick apart. Clean slate. And here we have an incredibly malleable story. We start at Krypton’s end, a very stylized setting which, I gotta admit, is pretty striking. It echoes the first movie, but in a very stark way, kind of like David Lynch’s take on Dune. But it also has the intended thrill of a Zack Snyder spectacular. The whole wad is muted in colors as well as performances (save Shannon’s). In fact, the whole damned movie is pretty stark, but it works to its advantage. Again, more on that later.

Apart from the scenery chewing form Shannon, life on Krypton varies from cyber-idyllic to Orwellian nightmare, and a lot of climate-change prophesying to hit a message—some message about ignorance—home. Don’t know why. Figures it’s trying to connect Earth and the homeworld, well, home. Probably a disconnect attached to the Moses-like analogy suggested by the comics.

I’m looking too far into this. Onto Cavill…

He did a serviceable job. He didn’t honor the legacy of Reeve (or even Routh), but he got to the aforementioned meat of the story; the stuff the whole Superman sh*t pivots on. It’s namely the light of hope, the beacon, that could ignite the ideals of humanity into both light and action…only to be ignored. But Supes just keeps on tryin’, one crumbling building at a time.

But Steel was also very dry. It almost chafes. Man of Steel is a rather dour film, almost overly serious, almost pulse-pounding, almost a blockbuster. But we can’t blame Cavill. He made for a rather…different Superman. A reluctant hero, all at sea about his station in life, and well aware that he is not of this Earth. A lot of soul searching goes on here, and Cavill acts with his face so well, you can go along for the ride. He’s got a certain magnetism about him that makes the audience actually curious about what’s going to happen next to the po’ faced, conflicted Kryptonian.

The first act is very subdued. Keen on the angst. An image that sticks with me is Clark finding himself on the beach of New England fishing village, looking for clothes to replace the stuff he lost rescuing a bunch of oil drillers. He’s kind of lost, at odds with himself, and the dulcet tones of Chris Cornell’s “Seasons” illustrate that no matter how powerful Clark is, he still feels lost, on the outside.

Unlike its predecessor Superman Returns, Man Of Steel generates empathy for our hero, not awe. It’s gotta be hard with all those crazy powers to keep it under wraps in a prejudiced world, even if you’re just trying to do things for the greater good. Cavill does angsty very well, above the usual cliché that has become with reluctant heroes an overdone device. He made a “different” kind of Superman. One overly reluctant; uncomfortable having powers and not really reconciling with that fact. He’s definitely feeling his alien roots up and down here; being an outsider. It’s kind of weird watching a superhero wandering around in existential crisis. It’s hard to root for this Superman, only to pray instead.

Another contrast to Superman Returns; that film nodded a lot to the mythos. Man Of Steel seems hell-bent on retconning it. To clarify, “retconning” (short for retroactive continuity) is the practice of comic book writers to take creative license and alter a significant plot device or a piece of a character’s mythos to better serve current storylines. For example, Uncle Ben never told Peter Parker “that with great power comes great responsibility;” it was in narration, not dialogue. Later it was changed to Uncle Ben. That being said, Steel takes pains to hammer the point home that this is the definitive Superman story. Or at least it should be.

But I’m not sold on the whole Kryptonain history/embellishment either. There is a definite feel of Snyder trying to put a square peg in a round hole. By reinventing the wheel, and with it’s slate-grey view of the world, the entirety of what makes Superman fun has been stripped away. This is one of Snyder’s more serious efforts. Deliberately so. And that is funny to say since most of Snyder’s films have serious undertones, but peppered with frivolity. None of that claptrap in Steel. We’re down to business here, and that business is becoming Superman in a hard, cold world.

Oh, and also thwarting General Zod’s quest to conquer the planet.

Steel got a lot of flak—and I mean a lot flak—for gratuitous amount of collateral damage during the big fight scenes between Supes and Zod’s cronies. As was said by the pros, a lot of collateral damage. Spectacle over sensibility. Even made me squirm. Not to say that the fight scenes weren’t exciting. Snyder hasn’t lost his flair for action while trudging through the existential swamp. Exciting yes, but also overwrought. More hammering away at the heaviness of the movie’s tone. They don’t just have to be action shots, they gotta feel as if every punch means something.

Enough about the melodrama, let’s talk about the acting. We’ve already dissected Cavill enough, and he is handily backed up by a variety of solid actors. It took a while for the new Jor-El (Crowe) to earn my attention. For me, Crowe will always be Maximus. Unlike that gladiator, Crowe was more soft spoken as Jor-El, the avatar of all things Kryptonian. The quiet way about him (even when sh*ts hitting multiple fans) I found rather, dare I say, charming. And Crowe is not a charming guy.

A lot of scenery chewing from Shannon, and the climax is the stuff of…well, comic book heads would leap out of the seats in horror, spilled their Jubjubes everywhere: SUPERMAN DOES NOT KILL! (screams, rending of garments.) Even I had trouble with that one. But overall, Shannon was a fun villain, one you love to hate but also one with a very specific agenda. His motives are clear, his execution flawless and he has a commanding presence necessary for general and/or comic book villain. I like that earnestness.

Amy Adams was a misstep in casting. She’s a great actress (and even did some voice acting for Justice League Unlimited. Really) but lacks any believable drive to get to the heart of the Superman scoop. It’s almost all a walk in the park as her Lois Lane just happens to be in the right place at the wrong time on he trail of the alien.

As for technical flourishes, there was a lot of neat camerawork and editing in Steel. Seeing how the plot for the first act of the movie is not linear, it took a lot of cool edits to keep the story floating (e.g.: Kal’s Earthfall, the “toner” bit). Along with tasteful uses of flashbacks, the flow of the film was right on. Two-and-a-half hours moved by rather smoothly. Good pacing.

This has had to be my most arch, stern, under the microscope kind of review. Man Of Steel is definitely not your father’s Superman movie. Any maybe that’s for the best. This was an interesting spin on the Superman mythos, highlighting the Kryptonian side rather that the adopted humanity Clark Kent so embraces. It made for a stark action movie, a lot of fist wrenching and teeth grinding, but it wasn’t boring.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a character study of what it’s like to be a superhero with lots of stuff going boom. ‘Nuff said (wait, that’s some other comic publisher).


Stray Observations…

  • Did the “scout ship” set borrow from Alien? Sure looked that way, and no doubt tying into the whole alien motif of the film.
  • Enough with the Jesus Christ imagery already.
  • This has got to be the best role Costner’s had in years.
  • “A good death is its own reward.” Yeah. I know. Badass.
  • What? No spitcurl?
  • “Nice suit, son.”
  • My pen died.

Next Installment…

We go over the rainbow with James Franco AKA Oz, The Great and Powerful.