Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Cradle Will Rock (1999)
Studio Line: Touchstone Pictures (Disney) - Art is never dangerous--unless it tells the truth.

Powerful and sweeping, the critically acclaimed Cradle Will Rock, starring Hank Azaria, Joan Cusack, John Cusack, Bill Murray and Susan Sarandon, takes a kaleidoscopic look at the extraordinary events of 1930s America. From high society to life on the streets, director Tim Robbins (Dead Man Walking) brings Depression-era New York City to vivid life. A time when da Vincis are given to millionaires who help fund the Mussolini war effort. And Nelson Rockefeller commissions Mexican artist Diego Rivers to paint the lobby of Rockefeller Center. A time when a young Orson Welles and a troupe of passionate actors risk everything to perform the infamous musical "The Cradle Will Rock." As threats to their freedom and the livelihood loom larger, they refuse to give in to censorship. Based on actual events, Cradle Will Rock will move you.

Director: Tim Robbins
Cast: Emily Watson, John Turturro, John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Hank Azaria, Angus MacFadyen, Cary Elwes, Cherry Jones, Ruben Blades, Philip Baker Hall, Vanessa Redgrave, Bill Murray, Susan Sarandon
Academy Awards: None.
Box Office: Budget: $32 million. Opening Weekend: $94 thousand. Gross: $2.90 million.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.0; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single side - dual layer; 28 chapters; rated R; 134 min.; $29.99; street date 5/16/00.
Supplements: Production Featurette; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Official Companion Book - Tim Robbins | Music soundtrack - David Robbins, Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: A/B/D

Cradle Will Rock is exactly the kind of picture right-wing zealots accuse liberal movie folk of making all the time. Since that accusation is actually untrue, it makes this film stand out even more, but unfortunately that unique quality is not a positive. CWR comes across as a rather self-righteous and preachy piece that never gels.

Much of the problem stems more from overambition than from excessive political content. CWR features a simply enormous cast of characters and provides fairly even focus on each of them. This means that we never get much of a feel for any of the personalities, and the growth of the characters seems minimal at best. We get to figure out who's who pretty well, but that's about it; the story has great difficulty gathering any true momentum when we're shuffled about from person to person in such a haphazard manner.

The quality of the acting doesn't help. CWR boasts an excellent cast, but few of the performances stand out as either positive or negative, though I felt most leaned toward the latter category since much of the acting was quite broad. It seems like most of the actors knew they'd receive limited screen time so they whooped it up while they could. The result is some of the hammiest and most emotive performances seen in a while.

These qualities reach their nadir with the simply terrible work of Cary Elwes as John Houseman and Angus MacFadyen as Orson Welles. Elwes' performance virtually defines "camp" as he flits and flames his way across the screen, while MacFadyen seems to think he's been cast as Patton; he yells virtually all of his lines and comes across as someone very consciously trying to act "larger than life" but merely seeming boorish and obnoxious. Maybe that tone accurately conveys Welles' personality, but it lacks any charm, and I can't believe that Welles was so crass and annoying.

On the positive side are strong performances from Vanessa Redgrave and Bill Murray. Redgrave portrays Countess LaGrange, a wealthy socialite who becomes marginally caught up in the "people's cause" when the performers of a musical - also called "Cradle Will Rock" - run into difficulty. The gleam in her eye as she tries to subvert the law is absolutely priceless, and she displays tremendous glee as this slumming rich lady. Murray plays Tommy Crickshaw, a failing vaudevillian who rats out his friends as Communists, and Murray imbues a wonderful sense of personality to the role. Indeed, Crickshaw is the only character who actually seems three dimensional; we see a variety of moods and emotions in him, unlike the other cartoonish personalities. Murray is well on his way on evolving from wonderful but one-dimensional comedic performer to a true actor, and his work here continues the development he showed in Rushmore.

Unfortunately, these few solid moments from Murray and Redgrave don't make up for the majority of Cradle Will Rock, which consists of lots of noise but little substance. Tim Robbins uses his third directorial effort to make yet another political statement (his previous releases were Bob Roberts and Dead Man Walking) but he bites off more than he can chew here; those movies stuck closely to a more intimate cast, but he goes over the top with a huge roster of characters that proves unmanageable. Cradle Will Rock isn't a bad movie, but it lacks consistency and seems too overtly political for its own good; Robbins never gives the audience a chance to form their own viewpoints as he shoves his own perceptions down our throats. There's a good story buried in here, but CWR is simply too slanted and too scattered to tell it effectively.

The DVD:

Cradle Will Rock appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While not completely flawless, the movie looks absolutely terrific in this rich and lovely transfer.

Sharpness seems perfectly crisp at all times; if any examples of softness occur, I couldn't find them. Jagged edges and moiré effects cause no problems, but I did see some moderate artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. The print itself seems clean and free from defects; I found no examples of grain, scratches, hairs, nicks, speckles or other flaws.

Colors are wonderfully full and well-saturated. Although the film as a whole tends toward that old-timey "Depression brown", some very bold hues escape at times; for example, a dinner party near the end of the movie presents colors that actually qualify as "eye-popping". Black levels appear deep and solid, and shadow detail is clear and appropriately opaque. This is a thoroughly amazing transfer.

The Dolby Digital 5.0 soundtrack isn't up to the level of the picture, but it seems acceptable and the audio fits the film. The soundfield remains very firmly anchored to the forward channels; very little sound comes from the surrounds. In fact, you'll be hard pressed to recognize that the rears are even on throughout the movie; they are, but they provide such light reinforcement of the front domain that their use is extremely marginal. The forward sphere seems better defined, and the stereo imaging tends to be fairly broad and active, though not to any extreme.

Quality appears solid but unspectacular, mainly due to the relative lack of low end. The audio seems clear and crisp but doesn't offer much depth for the most part. Dialogue is natural and intelligible, and effects are clean and realistic without distortion. The music suffers the most from the lack of bass, but since the period music wasn't very deep anyway, the flatness isn't a terrible problem. The soundtrack for Cradle Will Rock appears slightly weak just because it lacks scope, but it seems fairly appropriate for the subject matter.

Though the DVD offers excellent picture and good sound, the supplements are a disappointment. All we find here is the theatrical trailer plus an eight-minute production featurette. Actually, the latter is surprisingly good. It's clearly too brief to examine the subject in any detail, but it does provide us with a few details about the facts behind the story. It's worth the eight minutes to give it a look.

I can't really say the same for the film itself. Cradle Will Rock can't be called a complete failure, as it has some decent moments - most significantly in the form of excellent performances from Bill Murray and Vanessa Redgrave - but the long roster of faults outweighs the few strengths. The DVD itself offers a simply gorgeous picture plus good sound but lacks any substantial extras. If you just have to watch a movie with the words "cradle" and "rock" in the title, go for Curtis Hanson's The Hand That Rocks the Cradle instead; it's melodramatic cheese but it's more entertaining and compelling than this mess.

Final footnote: as with virtually every other recent DVD from Buena Vista, Touchstone's parent company, CWR includes some advertisements prior to the start of the feature. In this case, we find just one: Guinevere. I don't particularly mind these, as I can skip them easily on my Panasonic 120, but apparently others have more trouble with them and their presence on DVDs has annoyed quite a few people. Just wanted to issue my standard warning that they're here as well...

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top