Four Ron Howard movies in one box set? That sounds like happy days to Judge Paul Pritchard.
Our reviews of Apollo 13 (published April 21st, 1999), Apollo 13: 10th Anniversary Edition (published April 25th, 2005), Apollo 13 (Blu-Ray) (published April 12th, 2010), Backdraft (Blu-Ray) (published January 10th, 2011), Backdraft: Two-Disc Special Edition (published October 10th, 2006), A Beautiful Mind (published June 17th, 2002), Cinderella Man (published December 13th, 2005), Cinderella Man (Blu-Ray) (published May 28th, 2009), and Universal 100th Anniversary Collection (Blu-ray) (published November 26th, 2012) are also available.
"One of the great things about being a director as a life choice is that it can never be mastered. Every story is its own kind of expedition, with its own set of challenges."—Ron Howard.
Ron Howard's fine and varied filmography as a director has matured from early movies like 1977's Grand Theft Auto to more recent successes like Willow, Edtv, and A Beautiful Mind. Showcasing acting talents including Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, Renee Zellwegger, Robert De Niro and Paul Giamatti, The Ron Howard Spotlight Collection celebrates one of modern cinema's finest storytellers.
Facts of the Case
The Ron Howard Spotlight Collection features four of Ron Howard's finest:
• A Beautiful Mind is a biopic of John Forbes Nash (Russell Crowe, Gladiator), a math genius who struggled with both his attempts to come up with an original idea and mental health problems. Beginning at Princeton University, Nash's journey sees him go from teacher to code breaker for the U.S. government to, eventually, winner of the Nobel Prize.
• Apollo 13 tells the true story of the ill-fated third lunar-landing mission. Astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks, Big), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton, Aliens), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon, The Woodsman) are unexpectedly bumped up the pecking order and given their chance to walk on the moon. Unfortunately, with Neil Armstrong having already set foot on the moon in 1969, this 1970 mission held little public interest, being merely, "routine." Thanks to an explosion in one of the spacecraft's fuel tanks, the entire mission is put in jeopardy. Soon the attention of the entire world is focused on these three men trapped between the Earth and the moon. With no chance of landing on the moon, efforts turn to getting the crew home.
• Cinderella Man is the retelling of the life of James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) who, in 1930s America, rose from virtual obscurity to become heavyweight champion of the world. Set against the turbulence of the Great Depression, Braddock became an inspirational figure to many, bringing hope to those suffering the most.
• Backdraft, the only film in this set not based on real events, is the story of brothers Brian McCafferty (William Baldwin, Sliver) and Steven McCafferty (Kurt Russell, Big Trouble in Little China). Following in their father's footsteps, both brothers have pursued careers as firemen. Steven, a few years Brian's senior, has embraced the job fully, happily taking risks to get the job done. Brian, having witnessed the death of his father as a child, is more apprehensive and frequently clashes with his brother. When Brian quits the force following his inaction at a fire, he scores a job as a fire investigator and soon finds himself on the trail of an arsonist who seems to be after very specific targets.
A Beautiful Mind is a film that carries plenty of baggage. From its leading man, Russell Crowe, allegedly losing out on the best actor Oscar due to a drunken fracas in a hotel to accusations of the filmmakers dressing up the story and making significant changes to the book on which it is based, there is plenty to distract from the film itself. Throw in accusations of John Nash, on whom the film is based, being an anti-Semite, something strongly denied and attributed to pre-Oscar mudslinging, and the fact that the Academy gave it the Oscar for best film, over The Lord of the Rings no less, and the film suddenly has a lot to prove.
A measured performance by Crowe, fully deserving of his Oscar nomination, is the highlight of A Beautiful Mind. Crowe, never overplaying the tics and mannerisms, is enveloped by the role of Nash. Maintaining a slight vulnerability, Nash becomes one of Crowe's most accomplished roles. Unlike Crowe, Jennifer Connelly rightly walked off with the Oscar for best supporting actress, providing her finest performance to date in the process.
These performances are crucial as they mask the frequently stumbling screenplay, which suffers from instances of spectacularly unnatural dialogue. Exhibit A: "Perhaps it is good to have a beautiful mind, but an even greater gift is to discover a beautiful heart." Seriously, who talks like this? I appreciate films are allowed to exist in a heightened state of reality, but lines like that belong in cheap romance novels, not Oscar-winning movies. Thankfully Nash's story itself possesses enough genuine emotion to overcome such drivel and, in the final moments where an elderly Nash is acknowledged by his peers, Howard is able to bring a tear to the eye with barely a single word being uttered.
Apollo 13 saw Howard tackle the true story of the ill-fated 1970 mission to the moon and craft a riveting film that captures the intensity of the events as if they were unfolding in real time. Splitting screen time carefully between the three astronauts stranded in space, their families, and the efforts of those back at NASA's mission control, this ensemble piece is epic storytelling at its most grand.
Tom Hanks, along with Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon, usually walk off with all the credit when discussing Apollo 13. Every accolade bestowed upon the trio is fully deserved. But there is another trio just as deserving of praise that often goes overlooked, despite being the film's engine room. Ed Harris (The Truman Show), Gary Sinise (CSI: NY), and Kathleen Quinlan (Event Horizon) are all just as worthy of star billing as Hanks and Co. but seem content to quietly turn in performances that serve the story, rather than their own egos; highly commendable indeed.
Howard's Capra-esque tendencies are most evident in Cinderella Man. If this isn't the most beautiful film to come out of Hollywood this decade, it's certainly the most unappreciated.
I know the popular consensus has it that Raging Bull is the finest boxing movie ever made, but I'd like to respectively disagree. Cinderella Man bests Scorsese's classic by having a central protagonist that the audience can identify with and, crucially, quickly comes to care for. La Motta is a deeply, deeply flawed character and Scorsese and De Niro have rightly been lauded for their portrayal of the man, but Braddock is an inspirational figure. Though I, like many of you, enjoy films that delve into the darker side of life, and explore tortured souls like La Motta, the tale of Braddock, who keeps true to his values in the face of real adversity, warms the heart and elevates Cinderella Man to true greatness.
Cinderella Man opens with Braddock already washed up, this one-time contender facing the end of his boxing career. Coinciding with the Great Depression, his fall into hardship sees the luxuries his boxing career has afforded him disappear and threatens to tear his family apart. Detailing Braddock's rise from the ashes and the hope he brought to so many, Cinderella Man is the type of good old-fashioned filmmaking that seems beyond so many working in the industry today; how it failed to become a box-office smash is still a mystery to me. During its theatrical run, a number of cinema chains offered a money back guarantee to anyone who didn't enjoy the film, so confident were they of the product they had.
With Russell Crowe, Paul Giamatti, and Renee Zellweger all in top form, this tale of redemption is blessed with a cast that ensures the film never slips and becomes overly sentimental. The small, but important part of Mike Wilson affords the brilliant Paddy Considine (Dead Man's Shoes) one of his finest roles yet.
Howard himself is at the peak of his powers on Cinderella Man. Fight scenes are intense, tension-filled events. Howard captures all the elements that make the sweet science so captivating and encapsulates them in a series of brutal encounters. With the camera getting up close and personal with the pugilists, Howard ensures the roar of the crowd and screams of the trainers fill the periphery and perfectly recreate these legendary bouts.
Despite the excitement of the ringside action, it's the small things that make Cinderella Man so engrossing and ensure it gets under the skin. The scene where a penniless Braddock returns home to find his wife has sent their children to live with her sister, having only recently assured his son this very same thing would not happen, is heartbreaking. Similarly, when a desperate and frustrated Mae Braddock goes to the luxurious home of Jim's manager, Joe Gould, only to find the home nothing but a shell, devoid of the finery that once adorned it, the reality of this desperate time is truly brought home.
Akiva Goldsman crops up again with a screenwriting credit, having also worked on A Beautiful Mind, and although there are some slips into over sentimentality ("You're everybody's hope, and the kids' hero, and you are the champion of my heart, James J. Braddock."), Goldsman does enough here to (almost) be forgiven for his part in destroying the Batman franchise.
Not that it's a bad film, far from it in fact, but Backdraft feels a little out of place in this collection. A perfectly entertaining film it may be, but, compared to the company it keeps, it feels a little lightweight with a poorly conceived arsonist subplot that feels forced and unnecessary. Less character focused than the other films, Backdraft is a fine summer blockbuster but not much more, despite fine performances from Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Robert De Niro (Casino), and J.T. Walsh (Breakdown).
That said, it's impossible not to enjoy Backdraft for what it is, i.e., a rollicking good action-thriller. The film features some breathtaking firefighting sequences that take the viewer into the heart of the action. The relationship between Baldwin and Russell leads to some genuinely tender moments that hint at a much better film, had it not resorted to standard action movie conventions and included the aforementioned arsonist storyline. Perhaps it's the fact that Backdraft is the only film in this collection that isn't based on a true story that results in it being a less engaging and more throwaway movie. As an example of Howard's diversity, however, Backdraft is a worthy addition, though personally I'd have opted for the inclusion of Parenthood instead.
One thing evident throughout this box set, is that Howard's directorial style is less obvious than, say, a Scorsese or a Fincher. Rather, Howard adapts his game on a film-by-film basis. Even then, it's arguable that Howard lacks any identifying traits. This needn't be seen as a negative, however. Instead of flashy showmanship getting in the way, Howard crafts well-structured, engaging tales that, with the possible exception of Backdraft, resonate deeply with their audiences. Consider this: unless you are going into Cinderella Man completely blind, you'll know that James Braddock will become the champ, and yet, unless you have a heart of stone, you'll be swept up by the struggles this man went through to keep his family together. The title fight against Max Baer is as tense and exhilarating as any I've seen, despite knowing its outcome. It's to Howard's credit that such audience involvement is possible.
That Howard's back catalogue has one or two misfires in it (How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Da Vinci Code) is of little relevance when he has successfully jumped from genre to genre and more often than not been successful. As proven by A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, and Cinderella Man, Howard is at his best when dealing with real life stories, becoming the closest we have to a modern-day Frank Capra in the process. Though stories of astronauts in peril, a man suffering from mental illness, or a man battling both metaphorically and physically to save his family are rich with emotion, Howard never allows his films to cross over into schmaltz. Like Capra, Howard also makes films that it's okay for a man to cry at…not that I'd admit to such a thing myself.
Each film presented here is blessed with a rock-solid transfer, each as sharp as a tack. Though each film, with the exception of A Beautiful Mind, has been bettered by a Blu-Ray or HD DVD release, the high quality audio/visual presentation on each title, coupled with the extras for each film, makes this box set the best way to currently pick up these movies.
Talking of extras, The Ron Howard Spotlight Collection features a virtual smorgasbord of special features. The box set collects the two-disc special edition of each film, in the case of Apollo 13 this means the 10th Anniversary edition, replete with the shorter IMAX cut of the film. Pretty much any special feature you could ask for is included here, from commentaries, making of featurettes, deleted scenes, and special effects breakdowns; you name it and it's probably here. This isn't a set that blinds you with the sheer enormity of the extras included either, the breadth of information contained within this box set should leave all but the most demanding viewer satisfied.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One criticism that this set may struggle to shake, which may put off potential buyers, is the feeling that these films are Oscar fodder. On paper A Beautiful Mind in particular feels a little too knowing, a little too worthy. This same suggestion seems to have hindered Cinderella Man on its theatrical release. It's the misconception that these films are cold, sterile experiences that stands between this box set and the DVD shelf of every discerning DVD collector.
Four films, three of them great and the other merely very good, complete with enough extras to keep you watching for weeks makes The Ron Howard Spotlight Collection essential.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, Backdraft
Perp Profile, Backdraft
Distinguishing Marks, Backdraft
• Ron Howard Introduction
Scales of Justice, Apollo 13
Perp Profile, Apollo 13
Distinguishing Marks, Apollo 13
• Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13
Scales of Justice, A Beautiful Mind
Perp Profile, A Beautiful Mind
Distinguishing Marks, A Beautiful Mind
• Feature Commentary with Director Ron Howard
Scales of Justice, Cinderella Man
Perp Profile, Cinderella Man
Distinguishing Marks, Cinderella Man
• Feature Commentary with Director Ron Howard
Review content copyright © 2008 Paul Pritchard; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.