On DVD: New life for overlooked films

"Cinderella Man" and avant-garde films from the early 20th century get a second chance.

Randy Salas, Star Tribune

December 17, 2005

From unseen cinema to "Unseen Cinema," two new DVDs traverse more than a century to bring us films that many people have overlooked.
The first is the recent Ron Howard boxing film "Cinderella Man," which quickly went down for the count after its theatrical release, despite high expectations. The other is a remarkable seven-disc set of unusual and experimental films made from 1894 to 1941.
"Cinderella Man" is based on the inspirational life of boxer Jim Braddock, who triumphed over personal and financial hardship to become a champion. With the Oscar-winning pedigrees and drawing power of director Howard, writer Akiva Goldsman, producer Brian Grazer and stars Russell Crowe and Renée Zellweger, the film's success seemed certain.

But when "Cinderella Man" came out, relatively few people saw it. A highly publicized money-back guarantee by some theaters pushed its box-office take to $61.6 million, still disappointing considering the $88 million it reportedly cost to make the film (plus marketing costs) and the people behind it.

But Tuesday's DVD release will give "Cinderella Man" a chance at a comeback, just as an aging Braddock returned to the ring after being discarded to become a winner. What those who missed it in theaters will see is a fine, not great, film that's buoyed by Crowe's portrayal of Braddock.

That also describes the DVD (Universal, $29.98) -- fine, not great. Like the film, the extras on the disc, which devotes an entire side to the supplements, are too slick and formulaic.

Amid deleted scenes and various featurettes devoted to the history of boxing, the legend of Braddock and the production of the film, one nine-minute segment stands out: a conversation among Howard, Goldsman, Grazer and novelist Norman Mailer as they watch film highlights of the championship bout between Braddock and heavyweight champion Max Baer. The filmmakers often seem uncomfortable with the setup, but the enthusiastic Mailer, a boxing expert, puts viewers right in the ring.

"He's got one thing: He's got tremendous punch," Mailer says in vocalizing Braddock's thoughts about the overconfident Baer. "If I don't let that get in my way, I can beat him."

If only Mailer offered historical commentary during the movie, too. The easy-talking Howard provides good production anecdotes in his understated solo commentary track, but additional commentary tracks by Goldsman and co-writer Cliff Hollingsworth are redundant and uninvolving. Pairing Mailer with Howard and having just one audio track would have been ideal.

'Unseen Cinema'
While the "Cinderella Man" DVD is notable for what it lacks, the aptly titled "Unseen Cinema" (Image Entertainment, $99.99) gets props for what it has: 155 films totaling about 19 hours on seven discs. There's so much on the set -- beyond our ability to cover in this short space -- that a book ($18.95) and website (www.unseen-cinema.com, where the book can be ordered) are devoted to its content.

The discs are broken down by theme -- "The Mechanized Eye: Experiments in Technique and Form" and "Picturing a Metropolis: New York City Unveiled," for example. My favorite disc is "The Devil's Plaything: American Surrealism," whose expressionistic "The Telltale Heart" from 1928 takes the classic Edgar Allan Poe short story to eerie depths of depravity.

Some of the avant-garde films, such as 1919's "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," have come out on DVD before, but many have not been available since their original release, and some have never been widely seen. Culled from 60 film archives around the world, they have been fully restored with new scores and surely look and sound better than ever.

While "Cinderella Man" is a history-based film that's worth renting to see what you missed in theaters, "Unseen Cinema" is history and deserves a spot on any serious film fan's shelf.