Weighing in on Cinderella Man.

As directors go, Ron Howard is, so far, a middleweight. Howard is attracted to good work and, in turn, attracts the best talent. One day, I think he will be one of those Great Directors. Maybe not a Scorsese and definitely not a Hitchcock but perhaps a Spielberg. Ronnie just hasn’t done a masterpiece yet, like Spielberg’s Schindler’s List or The Color Purple. I thought that 2001’s A Beautiful Mind was vastly overrated and that it veered too far from Howard’s strength — blending the unbelievable with the real — to truly be the great film that it was made out to be. But if nothing else, A Beautiful Mind harnessed for Howard the finest performance he has yet to direct from Russell Crowe.

For Cinderella Man, we begin our tale in the late 1920s. Crowe plays James Braddock, a popular prizefighter. He is more famous than wealthy, and what money he does have he puts into stocks — as so many did in the ’20s just before that market came tumbling down. Braddock tumbles with it. When we catch up with Braddock a few years later, he and wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) have relocated from a cushy suburban home to a squalid basement apartment with three young kids in tow. Braddock’s bouts are significantly lower-profile, and he barely ekes out a shadow of the living he knew when his name was in lights at Madison Square Garden. The Braddocks are even too poor to afford milk, and it is not long before the milkman stops delivering and the power goes off for nonpayment. When Braddock breaks his hand in the ring, it looks like it’s all over. He loses his fighting license. No more fights. Work is scarce. The family is hungry. This, my friends, is rock-bottom.

As I like to say, rock-bottom is solid ground. That broken hand of Braddock’s heals into an even stronger puncher, and his old manager Joe Gould (Sideways Paul Giamatti) lucks the out-of-shape Braddock into a last-minute replacement fight, which he is expected to lose. He doesn’t. One by one, he is allowed new fights. He wins them. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a classic “Cinderella story” — hence the name. Braddock fights all the way to the top, in this case the World Heavyweight Championship against the mighty Max Baer (Craig Bierko). This is the fight of his life, and the whole world seems to be listening at their radios.

After writing my opening paragraph, which seems to be a Ron Howard dis, I’ve since gone and looked at his filmography, which includes the likes of The Missing, The Grinch, Ransom, EdTV, Splash, and my favorite, Cocoon. I didn’t mean to dis Mr. Howard — only to illustrate that his films are well-crafted, competent, and safe. 1995’s Apollo 13 is probably his best directing, and that was 10 years ago. I am looking forward to the next act in his career, which includes the upcoming DaVinci Code and East of Eden. There is, I think, more to admire in this film than in Howard’s others. The story is leaner, clearer. His sense of character is uncluttered and focused. Forays into sentiment are few, and lapses into melodrama are absent. His hand is sure.

More so than in other Howard films, I am struck by his use of composition. There are beautiful images here — as when Mae visits manager Gould and sits with his wife in their threadbare luxury apartment. (The Depression has depressed them as well, despite their attempts to keep up appearances.) The two ladies sit, politely, and the space around them and the lighting and the mood all conspire to create a striking portrait of dignified desperation. At the start of the film, we see the Braddocks in their bedroom, happy and confident. The camera pans across their rosy wallpaper slowly, and with that gentle sweep against that oh-so-1920s wallpaper, we are taken years ahead to their lean years in the next scene. The passage of time is gentle and beautiful.

Crowe, Zellweger, and Giamatti deliver excellent performances, and that excellence comes from being subdued and appropriate. None are showy (though Giamatti is the standout). That’s the grace and success of Cinderella Man. It’s lean and mean, keeps its eye on the prize, and satisfies by the strength of substance over style. Like Braddock’s historic bout with Baer, it’s no knockout, but it is a solid and sincere victory by decision. — Bo List

Good action movies don’t have to be filled with gunfire and car crashes. No, the kinetic thrills that come from ace action cinema can be a simple matter of well-filmed movement, especially when keyed to the right music. This dynamic is present in movies as mundane as the surfer-chick flick Blue Crush (utterly alive when surfing footage is synced to a hip-hop remix of “Cruel Summer”) or as grand as the musical Singin’ in the Rain (especially Donald O’Connor’s “Make ’Em Laugh” routine).

The new skateboarding docudrama Lords of Dogtown is a perfect example. Ostensibly a coming-of-age tale, a subcultural tour, and a sports film, it’s also an action movie. A dramatic retelling of the mid-’70s birth-of-a-scene story already told in the 2001 documentary Dogtown & Z-Boys, Lords of Dogtown is most alive when narrative is set aside and the camera trails closely behind the film’s teen skateboarder protagonists, weaving fearlessly between lanes of cars, dodging alleyway detritus, or, most beautifully, careening across the ledges of empty, sky-blue swimming pools, all to a pitch-perfect soundtrack of period hard rock (Hendrix, Bowie, Sabbath, etc.).

Lords of Dogtown was written by Dogtown & Z-Boys director Stacy Peralta, who lived the story and serves as one of the new film’s three primary protagonists, alongside more colorful pals Tony Alva and Jay Adams. This faithful adaptation of Dogtown & Z-Boys is directed by Catherine Hardwicke, following up her hit debut Thirteen.

Here, Hardwicke turns her lens from the contemporary female teen Cali subculture of Thirteen to an earlier male version of the same. That difference, not to mention a partnership with a writer/filmmaker in Peralta who commands at least equal authorship, implies a distance from the material that may have been helpful in this instance. Thirteen sometimes felt like an overheated after-school special (or scare movie for prospective parents). Lords of Dogtown has moments of overstated sociology, but it’s a film that seems more at ease with itself.

Set amid the mid-’70s beach-bum slums of Venice and Santa Monica, Lords of Dogtown tracks the rise of a skateboarding revolution, with technological advances and surfing techniques helping transform the once-quaint kids’ pastime in a forerunner of the X-Games era.

The technology comes in the form of urethane wheels, which grip the sidewalk and make possible twists and turns that would have previously left even the most accomplished skateboarder on his or her ass. These wheels, gleaming orange jewels, are ripped from their boxes by the film’s teen skaters when they arrive at the neighborhood surf shop. Shining in the sun and spinning smoothly, they’re gazed at with wonder and glee the way shiny diamonds might be in a heist movie.

The surfing techniques come from a slow period for ocean waves (these kids are surf-bums-in-training before skateboarding captures their imagination) and a drought that forces the area’s wealthy families to empty their pools for the summer. The kids scout out houses with pools, waiting for families to leave so they can hop the fence and use the pools as little concrete skateboard paradises, the structures’ concave and converse designs taking a previously horizontal hobby vertical.

Lords of Dogtown is excellently cast. Peralta is played by baby-faced Elephant blondie John Robinson, Alva by Raising Victor Vargas lead Victor Rasuk, and Adams by Emile Hirsch, a talented young actor who broke out with the indie hit The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys a few years ago and has since stood out in otherwise forgettable films both “indie” (Imaginary Heroes) and mainstream (The Girl Next Door). Best of all may be Heath Ledger in a deliciously scenery-chewing turn as the group’s drug-addled, surfer-dude den father, Skip Engblom, who organizes them into a skateboard team named after his surf shop, Zephyr, and enters them into a local contest, where judges are perplexed by the group’s unconventional routines (“But he didn’t do any of the compulsory tricks”) but the girls in the audience understand.

Lords of Dogtown is conventional filmmaking in many ways: Things go bad at a big party as a new era is introduced and the makeshift family falls apart. It may be based in reality, but the tidiness of the device seems more borrowed from Boogie Nights than a reflection of reality. Hardwicke also underscores the low-rent world these kids come from perhaps a bit too broadly. But Lords of Dogtown is a studio feature of uncommon good-heartedness. When cinematographer Elliott Davis (he also shot Thirteen) takes his hand-held camera and locks onto one those swooping, sweeping skateboard heroes, it’s a blast.

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