Seen at the Movies: In its limited, tradition-of-quality-and-uplift sort of way, Cinderella Man is the best movie Ron Howard has directed since his early days helming fluff like Night Shift and Splash. The new film is about Depression-era boxer James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe), who triumphed over poverty and injury to beat Max Baer for the world heavyweight championship. It’s essentially Seabiscuit all over again, as Braddock becomes a potent symbol for the 1930s working man. But, all due respect to the horse (or horses) that portrayed the title character of that 2003 film, Crowe is both the bigger star and better actor, and he endows Braddock with a combination of decency, pugnaciousness, and period gravity that makes a formula story seem substantive. I’m not a huge fan of boxing movies in general, but one roots for the protagonist here because what’s at stake for him is basic survival, and that of his family. Renee Zellweger does wonders with the potentially thankless role of Braddock’s wife (she and Crowe have great chemistry), and Paul Giamatti is handed the colorful role of Braddock’s manager, and with it perhaps the Oscar nomination denied him for Sideways.
Cinderella Man is beautifully shot in classical style by Salvatore Totino, who manages to go very dark in many sequences yet retain an aura of studio glossiness. The basement hovel that Braddock shares with his wife and three kids has a near-Dickensian squalor, and as is only one of the range of period settings provided by production designer Wynn Thomas. The film doubles its New York and New Jersey locations entirely in Toronto, but for once this appears not to have been driven by economics—the city’s decommissioned Maple Leaf Gardens was the location that best matched New York’s circa-1930s Madison Square Garden, where so much of the action takes place. Daniel Orlandi’s understated costumes perfectly call up the era, no more so than when flashy brute Baer (Craig Bierko) shows up at a nightclub with a woman on each arm and a full-length fur coat over his tux. Cinderella Man is the perfect movie for people who say Hollywood studios don’t make them like they used to.--John Calhoun
Just as there’s a trade magazine for every trade, so, too, will there one day be a documentary about every profession. [For a modest stipend, I’m available for the expose Lighting Dimensions: Days of Theme Parks and Roses.] Even given the current glut in docs, however, I thought it would take a little while longer to get to pro bowlers, but here comes A League of Ordinary Gentlemen (great title!) to prove me wrong. A little personal history: My dad was a terrific bowler, the terror of his league back in New Jersey in the early 1960s, and we used to play together. We also used to watch Professional Bowlers Association games, which ABC televised every Saturday for decades. Strike, spare, we were there, with pros like Dick Weber knocking down the pins and Chris Schenkel calling the shots on Wide World of Sports. Alas, when my fastidious Mom threw out his crumbling lucky ball (a devastating event in our family), Dad hung up his shoes for good, and golf gradually replaced bowling on the tube. We weren’t the only ones to give up the habit: After a recap of the glory days of the sport, the new film, directed by Chris Browne, picks up the story at its bitter end, with bowling cancelled by ABC in 1997 and the PBA slumping into a deep coma.
Then, a reawakening, as three Microsoft millionaires purchased the league for a fire-sale price in 2000 and a modest new version of the televised tourney reappeared on ESPN in 2002. The affectionate, if slightly jaundiced, documentary follows this seminal league year, one radically different from the past PBA, with the bowlers (mostly the same middle-aged schlumps of yesteryear) clad in snazzy new outfits and expected to cultivate marketable personas, per the Patton-like dictates of their new taskmaster, former Detroit Lions player and Nike executive Steve Miller. We meet a quartet of players as they make their way, match to match, from urban outpost to urban outpost. There’s the Zen master of the game, world champion Walter Ray Williams, Jr., who is also the world’s foremost horseshoes thrower (not the kind of thing you admit in mixed company); Pete Weber, trash-talking son of Dick (who died earlier this year), whose patented post-strike position, the "crotch chop," generates a little publicity as he obsesses over Williams; and handsome, media-genic family man Chris Barnes, groomed for stardom. More poignantly, there is the dark side of the force, the Sith of pro bowlers—Wayne Webb, who blew a million dollars in bowling earnings (back when the league was flush) on booze and bad business ventures and, with only a touring karaoke business to fall back on, attempts a comeback at age 45.
Design? Well, there isn’t much, unless you count the alleys themselves, which look like that spare room in your house you haven’t thought about, much less entered, since about 1983. There is, however, nice cinematography by Ken Seng, who captures the dramatic arc on the ball that all pros seem to have (I always thought you just threw it as straight as possible to hit the center pin, which is probably why I never amounted to much on the lanes), and a lively soundtrack by "minister of sound" Brian Fish. And, if you ever bowled, or watched bowling on TV, the match footage, edited by Kurt Engfehr, is genuinely suspenseful, earning what the press notes call "the Rodney Dangerfield of sports" a little respect after its steady diminishment on the public radar. Magnolia Pictures releases A League of Ordinary Gentlemen today in New York; consider taking your bowling partner for a spin as it fans out across the country.--Robert Cashill