Animadversions.

The weblog of Joshua Drescher

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It’s time, once again…

June 14th, 2005 · No Comments · Art, Movies, Rants

…for movie reviews - Kingdom of Heaven and Cinderella Man.

Spoilers abound, of course.

Kingdom of Heaven

Quick and dirty:

It’s not great, but it’s not as bad as I feared it MIGHT be.

The good:

Saladin is portrayed fairly well, which was a relief. His wisdom, merciful behavior and general “I’m-a-genius-not-an-asshole” attitude are presented quite effectively.

The pacing is good. The battle scenes are sufficiently engaging that you don’t find yourself falling asleep (a la Alexander) and the dialogue doesn’t drag, even during traditionally dull “prepping the city for the Final Battle” sequences.

Liam Neeson sword fights, which is apparently a requirement in every film he does now.

Scott does a great job of creating compelling VISUAL characters. The leprous King Baldwin LOOKS really cool, which, in turn, makes it easier to sit there and listen to him plot and mumble about the fate of Jerusalem.

And the bad:

Orlando Bloom shouldn’t be allowed to play heroic figures (unless they have pointy ears). He’s just too waifish and frail to be a believable “leader of men.”

The plot… well… kinda sucks. Somehow, in a film about the Crusades and about the conflict between Christianity and Islam we get little more than simplistic scolding from Scott about the foolishness of competition. You see, religion had NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. This conflict has raged for centuries solely because a “couple of bad apples” on either side ruined the blissful coexistence of the Abrahamic faiths. In his effort to not have the film be “pro-Islam” or “pro-Christian” or whatever else, Scott has reduced complicated issues, events and characters to insipid caricatures.

Saladin, though not portrayed badly, IS meddled with in a couple of annoying ways. First of all, he never even MENTIONS Allah. That’s like a movie about George Bush where no one ever mentions the word “freedom.” Second, the end of the film makes it seem like King Legolas managed to trick/force Saladin into offering the Christians safe passage out of Jerusalem, rather than sticking to the historical account whereby Saladin extended that merciful courtesy to EVERY CITY he conquered.

In the end, Kingdom of Heaven feels way too preachy to be good. It’s “history” if history was written by Reader’s Digest - everyone’s mostly heroic, all of the conflicts are essentially “misunderstandings” and, in the end, our characters learn something important about themselves, about friendship and about being good people. Well, shucks, I wish the real world operated like that.

If you haven’t seen it already, wait for the DVD.

Cinderella Man

I would’ve preferred Cinderfella, but that’s apparently taken already.

No, it isn’t one of the greatest movies of all time. No, this isn’t the best boxing movie of all time. No, this isn’t the best film of the year (or, if we’re counting documentaries, best film of the year).

But it IS good and it makes one thing completely clear:

Ron Howard desperately wants to be Frank Capra.

Somehow, he’s decided that Russel Crowe is his Jimmy Stewart, but whatever. He loves mushy, heroic stories detailing the triumph of the human spirit where uncomplicated Nice Guys win out in the end, despite overwhelming odds. In short, he makes movies for everyone’s grandmother.

This is, in and of itself, not uniformly bad. Capra certainly pulled it off time and time again, but he knew something that - apparently - Howard does not:

If you want to tell a perfect story, you have to make it up.

I came out of the film wanting to immediately read more about the people I’d just seen portrayed on screen. Was this unrelentingly inspirational tale REALLY all true? Unfortunately, as is too often the case with “historical films,” it wasn’t.

The real story of Jimmy Braddock is a great one. A good guy falls on hard times and fights his way back to the top, never compromising his values. Unfortunately for Howard, this poses a problem. Namely, that Braddock’s decency is TOO intense. The guy never waivers, never really doubts himself, never really gets “down” or has a moment where that decency might falter a bit. Simply put, he’s BORING. As a result, the story relies exclusively on action to keep us interested.

And here Howard runs into ANOTHER problem. Once the REAL Braddock’s rise back to the top gets underway, he’s TOO successful. Yes, he overcomes long odds, but he doesn’t face the kind of adversity in the ring that you basically NEED in a Hollywood film. He faces tough opponents, but there wasn’t a looming adversary for the audience to focus on. So Howard takes a REAL figure - Max Baer - and TURNS HIM INTO that grand opponent that offers us a reason to keep cheering for the hero, despite all of the obvious momentum he has in the story and the fact that that momentum points us towards an obvious, successful conclusion.

Howard’s Baer is a mix of the Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago. He’s a swaggering media darling who also happens to be an unstoppable, heartless killing machine. Sounds like a pretty interesting villain, right? Of course it is and this Baer WOULD have been an interesting villain if this were a fictional story. But it’s not and, as a result, what Howard does is sloppy, unprofessional and irresponsible.

The real Max Baer did, in fact, kill a man in the ring. In 1930, Baer knocked out Frankie Campbell, who later died from his injuries. Unlike Howard’s Baer, the REAL man was crushed. He wept and had nightmares. He considered retiring for good from boxing. He gave the proceeds from his fights to Campbell’s family for years in an effort to repair the damage that had accidentally been done.

Baer was a heroic figure in his own right, defeating Adolf Hitler’s hand-picked champion - Max Schmeling - in 1933 and becoming a hero to the Jewish people as a result (though it should be noted that Schmeling himself was a good man who - years later - hid the children of a Jewish friend to protect them during the Kristallnacht and later smuggled them out of Germany). Baer was a media darling, but mostly because of his comic attitude in and out of the ring (and his love of Hollywood starlets like Jean Harlow), NOT because he was some sort of proto-Tyson sociopath.

Basically, in order to make a good film, Howard needed to add something to his version of the story to throw more tangible obstacles into the path of Jimmy Braddock. To accomplish this, he sacrificed the reputation of another interesting and not-at-all-wicked man - a decision that I find to be incredibly unpleasant, which makes it hard for me to enjoy the film as a result.

Could Howard have done anything else to prevent his film from being overwhelmingly upbeat without compromising the truth? Probably not, which is why some stories are better told plainly, but honestly. And almost certainly, off of the silver screen.

Cinderella Man is most definitely one of those stories.

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