“KATE AND LEOPOLD” (2001) Review

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“KATE AND LEOPOLD” (2001) Review

I am a big fan of time travel movies. Especially well written movies featuring time travel. Mind you, not all of the films and television episodes featuring this genre have impressed me. But once in a while, I have come across a handful that I have found particularly appealing.

I never saw “KATE AND LEOPOLD” when it first appeared in movie theaters during the Christmas holidays in 2001. Looking back, I wondered why I never bothered to go to the theaters to see it. When I saw the original release date, I realized that I was more interested in watching “LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING”. In fact, I became so obsessed with that movie that I forgot all about “KATE AND LEOPOLD”. I did not see the latter until it was released on DVD.

Co-written and directed by James Mangold, “KATE AND LEOPOLD” is a romantic-comedy fantasy about an English duke who accidentally travels through time from New York in 1876 to the present and falls in love with a career woman in early 21st century New York. The movie begins with Leopold Alexis Elijah Walker Thomas Gareth Mountbatten, Duke of Albany attending a ceremony for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1876, where he spots amateur physicist Stuart Besser reacting to engineer Washington Roebling’s speech. Upon his return to his Uncle Millard’s Manhattan manor, Leopold is informed that his family’s depleted fortune needs to be replenished with a marriage to a wealthy American heiress. During a ball held in his honor, Leopold spots Stuart observing him. The 19th century aristocrat and tries to save the 21st century scientist from falling off the unfinished bridge; only to fall with the latter into a temporal portal between centuries. Leopold awakens in 21st century New York.

During his sojourn in 21st century New York, Leopold becomes acquainted with Stuart’s ex-girlfriend, a slightly cynical market researcher named Kate McKay and her younger brother Charlie, a cheerful, yet somewhat gauche and ambitious actor; after Stuart falls down his apartment building’s elevator shaft. Although Leopold has less trouble befriending the very friendly Charlie, he seemed to clash a good deal with Kate, who remains bitter over her breakup with Stuart. However, both Kate and Leopold grow closer after she arranges for him to appear in a margarine commercial. Friendship eventually develop into love, when Kate becomes aware of Leopold’s jealousy toward her relationship with her boss, J.J. Camden. But a bitter quarrel between the lovers over the margarine commercial, along with Stuart’s realization that Leopold needs to return to 1876 threaten to tear them apart.

“KATE AND LEOPOLD” could have easily become one of those sweet, treacly love stories more suited for infatuated fangirls. The movie’s ending certainly seemed to hint a love story, straight from a romance novel. But the rest of Kate and Leopold’s romance proved to be a solid balance of romance, cynicism, slapstick humor and a touch of bitterness. Mangold and co-writer Steven Rogers’ screenplay allowed the story to rise above the usual schmaltz, thanks to their main characters. Kate McKay seemed like a far cry from the usual leading lady in a romantic comedy. Thanks to Mangold and Rogers’ writing and a sharp performance from Meg Ryan, Kate is an ambitious and cynical woman, who not only has a penchant for brutal frankness, but seems incapable of moving past her embittered breakup with Stuart. Leopold Mountbatten/Duke of Albany seemed more like a typical leading man in a romance. He is an English aristocrat with handsome features and impeccable manners. However, Hugh Jackman did an excellent job in conveying Leopold’s priggish and self-righteous personality, with a surprising penchant wallowing in illusions. Not what I would consider typical leads in a romantic comedy. Perhaps the Hollywood Foreign Press Association thought so, when they nominated Jackman for the Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.

Mangold and Rogers’ list of interesting characters continue with Kate’s ex-boyfriend, Stuart Bessner. Ex-boyfriends in a romantic comedy are usually assholes who make life difficult for the leading ladies. Stuart was not an asshole. But Liev Schreiber did such a marvelous job in not only conveying Stuart’s annoying traits – his verbosity, professional obsessions and lack of responsibility toward his personal life – but also allowing the audience to discover a very likable man beneath the irritating traits. I do not know about others, but I cheered when Stuart ended up with his own little romance by the end of the film. Now, if I had to choose the most irritating character in the movie, it would be Kate’s younger brother, Charlie McKay. I have not seen Breckin Meyer in anything else, but I have to give kudos to him for not only capturing Charlie’s irritating and boorish personality, but also making him very likable. Both Meyer and Ryan provided a marvelous and poignant moment in the film in which the two McKays bid each good-bye for the last time. It always leaves tears in my eyes. If there was one character who could have easily been labeled as the movie’s asshole, it would be Kate’s boss, J.J. Camden. Thanks to Bradley Whitford’s entertaining performance, J.J. is slightly boorish, controlling, and an egotist. Yet . . . he is not only likable, but also very forgiving. Despite his humiliation by Leopold, Kate not only kept her job, but also received a well-deserved promotion by a forgivable J.J. He turned out to be a decent sort in the end.

The movie also featured some memorable supporting performances. The American-born Philip Bosco gave a convincing performance as Leopold’s dependable valet, Otis. Paxton Whitehead was excellent as Leopold’s frank and disciplined Uncle Millard. In fact, I get the feeling that once Uncle Millward recover from his disappointment over Leopold’s marriage to Kate, he might come to admire her practicality, discipline and ambition. Natasha Lyonne gave a charming performance as Kate’s sweet secretary Darci, who happens to be a big fan of romance novels. Ebony Jo-Ann was wonderful as Stuart’s no-nonsense hospital attendant, Nurse Ester. Kristen Schaal was equally charming as Miss Tree, the wealthy American heiress whom Uncle Millard had marked as Leopold’s future wife. And I found it very difficult to view her as an unattractive woman, no matter how hard she tried to convey that image. The movie also featured Leopold’s funny quarrel with a NYPD beat cop over Stuart’s dog relieving himself on the city street. The cop was portrayed by none other than Viola Davis, who provided a sneak peak of those impressive acting skills that would make her a star before the decade ended.

There were other aspects of “KATE AND LEOPOLD” that I enjoyed. I found Stuart Dryburgh’s photography of New York City – past and present – very impressive and colorful. I was especially impressed by his work in the 1876 sequences. His photography was helped by Stephanie Carroll’s set decorations, Jess Gonchor’s art direction and especially Mark Friedberg’s production designs for this particular sequence. Their combined worked helped Mangold do an exceptional job in re-creating 1870s New York City. I could also say the same about Donna Zakowska’s costume designs. I found them very attractive and an excellent reflection of the Gilded Age, as reflected in the image below:

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As much as I enjoyed “KATE AND LEOPOLD”, I must admit I had a major problem with it. My biggest problem with the script turned out to be the mode in which three of the characters used to time travel between 1876 and 2000 (or 2001). What did Mangold and Rogers used? A temporal portal situated mid-air around the Brooklyn Bridge. In order to access this portral, the time travelers had to fall from a high height – either from a scaffold in 1876 or one of the bridge’s steel girder in the 21st century. I realize that the two writers were trying to add some suspense and drama to the story’s method of time travel, but I thought it was a bit too much to force the characters to utilize what I feel is an unnecessarily difficult mode. I also found it odd that Mangold and Rogers would choose Mountbatten as Leopold’s surname. The name was adopted by the English branch of the Battenberg family in 1917, to counter the rising tide of anti-German sentiment during World War I Britain. It did not exist in 1876.

“KATE AND LEOPOLD” would never make my list of top ten favorite time travel movies. I had no problems with James Mangold and Steven Rogers’ screenplay, despite its flaws, Mangold’s excellent direction or the marvelous cast led by Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber. Frankly, I thought the movie had a very entertaining and charming story filled with some complex and interesting characters. But it is more of a romance film, instead of a time travel film. And that is why I view it as one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time.

“CINDERELLA MAN” (2005) Review

 

“CINDERELLA MAN” (2005) Review

When I had first learned about Ron Howard’s biopic about boxing champion James J. Braddock, I was very reluctant to see the film. In fact, I did not even bother to go see it. Instead, I merely dismissed “CINDERELLA MAN” as a ‘“SEABISCUIT” in the boxing ring’. After I finally saw the movie, I must admit that my original assessment stood. 

“CINDERELLA MAN” and the 2003 Oscar nominated film, “SEABISCUIT” seemed to have a lot in common. Both were released by Universal Pictures. Both films possessed a running time that lasted over two hours, both were sentimental stories that centered around a famous sports figure and both were set during the Great Depression. Unlike “SEABISCUIT”“CINDERELLA MAN” told the story about a man – namely one James J. Braddock, an Irish-American boxer from New York and Bergen, New Jersey. The movie started out with Braddock (portrayed by Russell Crowe) as a boxing heavyweight contender in 1928, who had just won an important bout against another boxer named Tuffy Griffiths. But within five years, Braddock found himself as a has-been struggling to keep his family alive during the depths of the Depression, while working as longshoreman. Thanks to a last minute cancellation by another boxer, Braddock gets a second chance to fight but is put up against the number two contender in the world, Corn Griffin, by the promoters who see Braddock as nothing more than a punching bag. Braddock stuns the boxing experts and fans with a third round knockout of the formidable Griffin. After winning a few more bouts, Braddock ends facing boxing champ, Max Baer (Craig Bierko), for the heavyweight title in 1935.

Despite the similarities between “CINDERELLA MAN” and “SEABISCUIT”, I must admit that I regret not seeing this film in the theaters. It turned out to be a lot better than I had expected. Director Ron Howard, along with screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, did an excellent job of chronicling Braddock’s boxing career at a time when he had been labeled a has-been by the sports media. The movie also featured some excellent fight sequences that came alive due to Howard’s direction, Crowe, Bierko, and the other actors who portrayed Braddock’s opponents. Although the movie’s main event was the championship fight between Braddock and Baer during the last thirty minutes, I was especially impressed by the sequence that featured Braddock’s fight against Art Lansky (Mark Simmons). In my opinion, most of the praise for these fight sequences belonged to cinematographer Salvatore Totino, and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill (who both received Academy Award nominations for their work) for injecting the boxing sequences with rich atmosphere and effective editing.

Ironically, the movie’s centerpiece – at least in my opinion – was its deception of the Depression. I understand that Howard had used the city of Toronto to serve as 1930s Manhattan and New Jersey. And judging from the results on the screen, he did an excellent job of utilizing not only the cast led by Crowe, but also the talents of production designer Wynn Thomas, Gordon Sim’s set decorations, Peter Grundy and Dan Yarhi’s art direction and Totino’s photography to send moviegoers back in time. There are certain scenes that really seemed to recapture the desperation and poverty of the Depression’s early years:

*Braddock begs for money from the sports promoters and boxing managers at Madison Square Garden
*Mae Braddock’s discovery of the gas man turning off the family’s heat
*The Braddocks witness the desertion of a man from his wife and family
*Braddock’s search for his friend, Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine), at a Hooverville in Central Park

Howard and casting agents, Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins, managed to gather an impressive group of cast members for the movie. The ironic thing is that despite the impressive display of talent on screen, hardly anyone gave what I would consider to be a memorable performance – save for one actor. Russell Crowe naturally gave an impressive, yet surprisingly likeable performance as James Braddock. Although I found his performance more than competent, I must say that I would not consider it to be one of his best roles. There was nothing really fascinating or complex about his Braddock. I suspect that screenwriters Hollingsworth and Goldsman could have made Braddock a more interesting character . . . and simply failed to rise to the occasion. I have to say the same about their portrayal of the boxer’s wife, Mae Braddock. Portrayed by Renee Zellweger, her Mae was a loving and supporting spouse, whose only kink in her personality revolved around her dislike of Braddock’s boxing. In fact, Zellweger’s Mae threatened to become a cliché of the countless number of women who end up as wives of men in dangerous professions. Thankfully, Zellweger managed to give an excellent performance and with Crowe, create a strong screen chemistry.

Paul Giamatti received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Braddock’s manager, Joe Gould. Many had assumed that Giamatti had received his nomination as a consolation prize for being passed over for his superb performance in “SIDEWAYS”. After seeing his performance as Gould, I suspect they might be right. I am not saying that Giamatti gave a bad performance. He was excellent as Braddock’s enthusiastic and supportive manager. But there was nothing remarkable about it . . . or worthy of an Oscar nomination. If there is one performance that I found impressive, it was Paddy Considine’s portrayal of Mike Wilson, Braddock’s friend and co-worker at the New York docks. Considine’s Wilson was a former stockbroker ruined by the 1929 Crash, who was forced to become a menial laborer in order to survive. Although his plight seemed bad enough to generate sympathy, Considine did an excellent job of portraying the character’s bitterness and cynicism toward his situation, President Roosevelt’s ability to lead the country out of the Depression and the world itself. I hate to say this, but I feel that the wrong actor had received the Oscar nomination. God knows I am a big fan of Giamatti. But if it had been left up to me, Considine would have received that nomination.

We finally come to Craig Bierko’s performance as Max Baer, champion boxer and Braddock’s final opponent in the movie. Baer’s character first makes his appearance in a championship fight against Primo Carnera, following Braddock’s surprising upset over Corn Griffin. From the start, he is portrayed as a brash and aggressive fighter who does not know when to quit. And it gets worse. Before I continue, I want to say that I have nothing against the actor who portrayed Baer. Like Crowe, Zellweger and Giamatti, Bierko had to do the best he could with the material given to him. And he did the best he could. Bierko, being an above-average actor, infused a great deal of energy and charisma into his portrayal of Baer. It seemed a shame that Howard’s direction, along with Hollingsworth and Goldman’s script forced Bierko to portray Baer as some kind of callous thug who felt no remorse for killing two other fighters in the ring and was not above needling Braddock at a Manhattan nightclub by making suggestive remarks about Mae.

Baer’s son, Max Baer Jr. (“THE BEVERLY HILLIBILLIES”) had been naturally outraged by what he deemed was the movie’s false portrayal of the boxer. What the movie failed to convey was that Baer had only killed one man in the ring – Frankie Campbell – and had been so shaken up by the other man’s death that it affected his boxing career for several years. Nor did Baer ever make any suggestive remarks toward Mae Braddock. He also hugged and congratulated Braddock following the latter’s June 1935 victory. I really do not know why Howard thought it was necessary to turn Baer into a one-note villain. Someone claimed that the movie needed a nemesis for Braddock that seemed more solid than the vague notion of the Depression. If that is true, I believe that Howard and the movie’s screenwriters turned Baer into a villain for nothing. As far as I am concerned, the Great Depression made an effective and frightening nemesis for Braddock. This was brilliantly conveyed in Braddock’s bout with Art Lasky. At one point in this sequence, the New Jersey boxer seemed to be on the verge of defeat . . . until his memories of his family and how the Depression had affected them . . . urged him to a hard-won victory. Sequences like the Braddock-Lasky fight and Braddock’s search for Mike Wilson in the Central Park Hooverville made the Great Depression a more effective nemesis than the one-dimensionally crude behavior of falsely portrayed Max Baer ever could.

Despite the movie’s badly written portrayal of Baer, and slightly uninteresting major characters like James and Mae Braddock, and Joe Gould; “CINDERELLA MAN” is still an excellent biopic that featured exciting boxing sequences. More importantly, it is one of the few Hollywood films that revealed an in-depth look into one of the country’s most traumatic periods – namely the Great Depression. Flawed or not, I believe that it is still worth watching.