'Dogtown' Z-Boys Soar, 'Cinderella Man' Delivers Knockout Punch, By Kurt Loder

Skateboard saga brings the '70s back alive; Russell Crowe scores another triumph in hard-punching ring epic.

"Lords of Dogtown": An Inland Empire

"Lords of Dogtown," a movie modeled on the armature of Stacy Peralta's 2001 retro-documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys," is the kind of youth-culture film that, like "American Graffiti," can make you nostalgic for a time and a place that you never experienced first-hand. It's only the second picture directed by Catherine Hardwicke ("Thirteen") but it's sleek with assurance, and it vibrates with a bouncing-off-the-walls energy that sucks you right into the action.

Peralta, the skateboarding legend who also wrote the script for this movie, once again tells the story of a group of surf punks who in 1975 invented an extreme new version of the sport, bringing their 'boarding skills out of the water and into the hilly streets and empty swimming pools of "Dogtown" — the then-grubby Venice Beach, California. (A paralyzing drought that year had forced homeowners to empty their slope-sided pools, thus creating a new arena for soaring skateboard stunts.)

The Z-Boys are teenaged terrors with not a lot of home life or parental supervision going on. Peralta (played here by the angelically apple-cheeked John Robinson, of "Elephant") has a good-guy dad who drinks too much. The surly Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch, of "The Girl Next Door") broods over the promiscuous antics of his partying, pot-head mom. And cocky Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk, of "Raising Victor Vargas") bristles under the strictures of his puritanical father.

When Santa Monica surf-shop owner Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger, nailing the stoned deportment of a SoCal slacker in the movie's funniest performance) checks out these kids' radical new skateboarding style, he decides to organize them, along with some similarly inclined local teens, into a team, and takes them out to compete against other, more sedate skaters. They are an immediate sensation; they even start acquiring groupies. But the judges at these competitions, staring in slack-jawed amazement at the Z-Boys' one-footed wheelies and swirling 360s, are baffled. "I don't know what to call that," says one. "I've never seen it." Grumps another: "He didn't do a single compulsory trick."

Tony Alva is the first of the boys to perceive a skateboarding future way beyond the small-time dreams of Skip Engblom: "You know what I'm thinkin', bros? We're gonna be on summer vacation for the next 20 years." Peralta is won over, but Jay Adams resists turning a pastime he loves into a commercial career, and in the end he bails.

The Z-Boys' pioneering stunts are no longer novel, but it's still thrilling to watch them sailing off of roofs and up walls and even up into the air. You can feel their exhilaration. As Tony tells them, "This is our time, brothers!"

Get more from behind the scenes of 'The Lords of Dogtown' on MTV Overdrive.

The movie also features a sweet, touching performance by Michael Angarano (of the TV show "Will and Grace"), who plays a lovable, gnome-like hanger-on named Sid. And the likable Johnny Knoxville does a broad impersonation of a white-suited skate-scene hustler named Topper. (It's a little too broad, actually: the character is a slightly out-of-place cartoon.)

The Z-Boys (named after Skip Engblom's Zephyr surf shop) eventually drift apart. Peralta and Alva go on to become international skateboard champions, decked out in gaudy uniforms thick with corporate promotional logos. ("Stacy looks like a stock car," says Jay, disgusted by the sight.) Adams falls in with a skinhead gang, and later, we're told in a closing note, gets busted for drugs. But they all come together again, one last time, in a visit to a 'boarding friend who's now confined to a wheelchair. The final scene, in which they tenderly wheel him down into an empty pool and then hop on their skateboards and start zooming up and over and all around him, is wonderfully moving. Your heart soars along with them.

"Cinderella Man": The Comeback Kid

Few promotional phrases fall as unpromisingly upon the ear as "feel-good movie." The term suggests teary, soft-focus uplift — a "chick flick." But "Cinderella Man," the new Ron Howard picture, which opens with a bone-crunching punch to the head, may be the feel-good movie of the year. It's that rare film "based on a true story" that actually is based very closely on a true story; and it's the truth of the story, not just the filmmakers' emotional manipulation of it, that tugs irresistibly at your heart.

Russell Crowe, in one of his warmest and most eloquent performances, plays James J. Braddock, a Depression-era boxer of modest technical skills, now largely forgotten outside of fight circles, who managed one of the most wondrous comebacks in ring history, and in the process became, briefly, something of a folk hero. The New York sports laureate Damon Runyon dubbed him "the Cinderella Man."

The film begins in 1928. The 23-year-old Braddock has just won a match at New York's Madison Square Garden, and he and his loyal manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti, creating yet another quietly beguiling character), are giddily dividing up the $8,000 he has just won. Braddock, the "Pride of New Jersey," the "Bulldog of Bergen," believes a world championship is now within his grasp.

He loses his next two fights, though, and along with them his professional momentum. In 1929, when the stock market crashes and the U.S. economy collapses, he is plunged, along with millions of other Americans, into the most wretched poverty. By 1934, in the deepest pit of the Great Depression, Braddock is a has-been, another aging, luckless palooka with battered ribs, busted-up hands and a lot of missing teeth. Jimmy still has his unquenchable dream and his staunch Catholic faith, but he and Mae are living with their three children in a single, smothering room, the grim centerpiece of which is a growing stack of unpaid rent and electricity bills. He's still fighting, but now for just $50 a match. Then the city's kingpin fight promoter, Jimmy Johnston (Bruce McGill), revokes Braddock's boxing certificate. He's a loser, Johnston says, and that's bad for boxing — people won't pay to see losers. When Mae tells Jimmy the grocer has canceled their credit, and there's no more food, he slumps, for one sunless moment, in complete despair. "We ain't got nothin'," he says, and "I'm all prayed out."

The movie lays out the abject awfulness of the Depression in a matter-of-fact way. This is simply, unbelievably, how it was: the mobs of desperate men clamoring to be picked for one of the handful of hard-labor day jobs available on the New York docks; the destitute families forced to send their hungry children away to live with slightly better-off relatives; the army of homeless people shivering in a makeshift Central Park slum of sagging tents and lean-tos as police roam about cursing the radical protestors among them as "commies," and beating them to the ground. When we see Braddock swallowing the last of his pride and groveling before the boxing bigwigs who won't reinstate his license to fight, begging them for spare bills and pocket change to buy food for his children, we feel the crushing humiliation of poverty with excruciating force.

It's not just Jimmy Braddock who's beaten down; the whole country is beaten and defeated. Then Joe Gould brings good news: Braddock has been granted permission to step in and replace a boxer who's dropped off the undercard at a big match. He wins, and the crowd goes wild. He keeps fighting, and he keeps winning, and he captures the imagination of a nation that's starved for hope and promise. Soon he finds himself next in line to take on the heavyweight champion of the world, Max Baer.

In the movie, Baer (vividly played by Craig Bierko) is a strutting brute in a garish fur-collared topcoat, surrounded by fawning women and limoing around town like a movie star. (Which he was: Baer appeared in a score of Hollywood films, starting with "The Prizefighter and the Lady," in 1933.) Baer doesn't want to fight Braddock ("He's a chump"), but there's not much choice, and it'll be an easy win for the champ. However, even Jimmy Johnston, the icy promoter, has misgivings about this match — Baer has a right hand that he uses like a club, and he's already killed two men in the ring. Johnston shows Braddock a film of a Baer fight in which his opponent's brain was knocked loose in his head. "Run it again," Braddock quietly says. "You think you're tellin' me somethin', like boxing's dangerous?"

Braddock and Baer climb into a New York ring, in front of 35,000 people, on June 13, 1935. Braddock is a 10-to-1 underdog, and the fight, which takes up the last 20 minutes of the movie, is a set-piece of sheer, wearying brutality. It runs to 15 rounds, and when it's over, you feel like you've come to the end of a particularly improbable fairy tale. Most improbably of all, this one really happened.

Russell Crowe's portrayal of Braddock as a simple, good-natured man whose only concern in the world is for his wife and children is unimprovable. He didn't have a lot to work with. There's no self-consciously dazzling wordplay in the admirably uncluttered script (by Akiva Goldsman, Cliff Hollingsworth and Charlie Mitchell), and there are no scenes of blazing emotional abandon. Crowe seems to conjure up his uncomplicated character out of sweet, lingering smiles and soulful glances; and yet you find yourself filling in all the feelings that he appears to be holding back, until finally you begin to feel them yourself.

Zellweger's Mae is a little problematic. It's hard, today, to accept an uncomplaining wife of such selfless devotion. And when she tells Jimmy "You're the Bulldog of Bergen, and the Pride of New Jersey, and you're the champion of my heart," it snaps you out of the movie for a moment — it's the worst line in the script. But it's the only clinker.

"Cinderella Man" is a two-and-a-half-hour epic of bloody, pummeling violence. But it's also a movie of great delicacy of feeling. And its unfashionable message — that even in life's bleakest hours there's still the possibility of a glorious rebound — is one that's still worth hearing. Especially when, in the story of Jimmy Braddock, it proves to be true.