Cinderella Man HD DVD
Before there was Rocky there was, in real life, James J. Braddock. Braddock was a respectable fighter and contender in the late 20's who fell on extremely hard times during the depression. He was reduced to poverty like so many millions of Americans and barely put food on this family's table between boxing and working the docks. In the mid-30's he went on the right winning streak at the right time, culminating in his capturing the heavyweight title in 1935. Offering some idea of what an underdog Braddock was in his title bout with Max Baer, he entered the ring that night with the very pedestrian record of 44 wins and 23 losses. The "Cinderella Man's" story inspired millions, not to mention the impact it's had on sports movies over the decades.
When Ron Howard's film Cinderella Man hit theaters in 2005 it didn't exactly light the world on fire in spite of the stellar cast with Russell Crowe in the lead role and Renee Zellwegger as Braddock's wife Mae (not to mention Paul Giamatti coming in fresh off his surprise indie hit Sideways). It was released at admittedly odd time, being essentially a drama released in early when the action blockbusters are about. The story at the time was that critics liked it and it deserved better.
I enjoyed the movie, but was a little under whelmed. The filmed story of the Cinderella Man suffers with me due to the fact that I'm a big boxing fan and already knew the story and that like a lot of people I'd already seen so many of the movies the real "Cinderella Man" inspired. I was also disturbed by the fact that the filmmakers felt compelled to not only make heavyweight champion Max Baer a dangerous fighter, but a lout of a man, which by all accounts he was not. Even the archival footage and interviews included on this HD DVD show Baer as the affable, fun-loving guy he was, belying the films' churlish portrayal of him. (If the name sounds familiar to some of you, Max Baer's son Max Baer Jr. indeed grew up to play Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies. Max Jr. was not at all pleased at this film's treatment of his old man, by the way, and good for him for saying so).
Still, I know I'm being hard. The story is inspiring and this film is exceptionally well crafted and acted all the way around. And, if you don't feel good after watching this movie I suspect you haven't a pulse. Giamatti is obnoxious and funny and touching as he often is, and not only is Crowe's acting terrific, his physical impersonation of Braddock in the ring is uncanny. Crowe became Braddock from the inside out in a way that very, very few actors can even dream of. Zellwegger is actually no less impressive herself. Worth a rental if nothing else.
The image quality on this HD DVD is generally fantastic, and as is becoming typical of HD DVD it annihilates the image of the DVD through no specific faults of the DVD itself. Especially in the dark scenes, which are many, the DVD looks soft, noisy and grainy and lacking in focus in comparison. A few of those dark scenes mysteriously wash out, but in general the stylized photography here is done marvelous justice with rich, film-like detail that's about as natural looking as digital video gets. It's remarkable how pure these VC-1 encoded HD DVDs are, with incredible resolution that's still not "too sharp" or unnatural in any way.
I compared the HD DVD to HBO HD broadcast, and the HD DVD is a little sharper and crisper but also entirely devoid of the occasional motion/compression artifacts that are evident in the HBO broadcast. These artifacts aren't particularly bothersome or even noticeable until you see the HD DVD, but in comparison it's unmistakable that the HD DVD rules.
This comparison in overall sharpness to the HBO HD broadcast is closer than I've seen with some HD DVDs. Howard typically shoots in Super 35, which is shown on HBO at 1.78:1 with the matting removed. The DVD and the HD DVD are presented in the 2.35:1aspect ratio. Thus, the HBO version shows more of the exposed frame, but also uses more of the vertical resolution available in a 16:9 image.
The sound on this HD DVD is nothing better than serviceable. The sound design overall is subdued, perhaps due to its being a period piece. I wasn't crazy about the film's score, and was surprised how flat and un-involving the sound of this movie is overall.
As is typical of HD DVD all of the substantial extras from the two-disc DVD are included here. While many of the extras here are worthy (if a little self-congratulatory), especially the interviews with Braddock's surviving family members, the money shot for me is the inclusion of the original Baer-Braddock championship fight with a running commentary by the filmmakers. The list of extras is literally too long to catalog here, but as an overview there are three commentaries- two with the film's writers and one with director Ron Howard- deleted scenes with commentary by Howard, and countless features with interviews with the cast and crew.
Cinderella Man is a heavyweight as on HD DVD to be sure (ouch!).
Video reviewed on Marantz VP-11S1 1080p DLP projector, 80" wide Stewart Filmscreen Studiotek 130 screen, and Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD player via HDMI. Audio sent via SPDIF to Theta Casablanca III pre/pro with Six-Shooter, Theta Citadel and Dreadnaught power amps, and Vandersteen loudspeakers.