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Crowe scores a knockout

By Lady Liberty
web posted June 6, 2005

Lords of Dogtown

** 1/2 out of ****

Lords of DogtownSomething like Lords of Dogtown is not usually "my kind" of movie. But the trailers I'd seen combined with the fact it told a true story I quite literally knew nothing about was attractive, and so I went. While it's not the best movie I've seen, it was also far from the worst and I learned a little besides. In more reviewer-type language, it's worth a look.

The Lords of Dogtown are a few young skateboarders who live and play in Venice, California. Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), and Stacy Peralta (John Robinson) are great admirers of the older and infinitely cooler "Skip" Englom (Heath Ledger). The trio often sneak out of their homes early in the morning and ride their skateboards to the pier in the hopes of catching some early morning waves with Skip and his surfer friends. On a typical morning, the older men make the boys perform a variety of chores before they "allow" them to take to the water themselves.

The boys suddenly become much more important to Skip when he receives some new-fangled wheels in trade for some work he's done at his Zephyr surf shop. The wheels are made of polyurethane, and when attached to a skateboard in place of the original wheels, they allow a skater to "surf" on land. Skip tells the kids they can now make the same sharp turns and other moves on their skateboards as they do on the ocean waves, and he excitedly decides to form a competitive skateboard team to let the boys do just that. Skip's motives, of course, have little to do with the boys and a lot to do with the money he thinks he can make manufacturing new skateboards with the new wheels himself. But the boys don't care. Not only are they now working with the man they've looked up to for so long, they're skating on better boards and challenged by competition. Even hangers-on like Sid (Michael Angarano) go along for the ride when pretty girls and sycophantic fans begin to show up everywhere the team does.

As the boys coalesce into the Zephyr team, their already formidable talents are enhanced by the sanction to practice regularly as well as the better equipment. The more contests the boys win, the more skateboards Skip sells, which should make everybody happy. Unfortunately, other factors are involved which undermine their success. Jay's mother (Rebecca DeMornay) is a chemically dependent and emotionally needy woman who loses a boyfriend Jay likes because, he tells Jay, "Your mother's crazy." Tony's father is doing his best to raise his son and daughter Kathy (Nikki Reed), but his "best" all too often includes berating the children, particularly Tony. Stacy, meanwhile, is the only boy who has a job, and his sense of responsibility all too often causes him to be the butt of jokes by his friends and harassment from Skip. And Skip himself proves to be both jealous of the boys' success and self-destructive when others try to horn in on what he views as his team and his creation.

In the 1970's, I was growing up in a small town in northern Minnesota. It was a real revelation to me to see just how different that same time period was in Venice, California, and how alien the kids and the world of surfing and skateboarding was to the things I knew at the same age. The clothing and the music, however, brought back memories, and the film seemed to be quite authentic in its look and its presentation. The gritty realism of the film and the story certainly have something to do with the director, but it's likely that even more is owed to the screenwriter: the real Stacy Peralta himself. Tony Alva and Jay Adams also cooperated with the making of the film, and the actors selected to play the three bear a surprising resemblance to early photos of the real "Lords of Dogtown."

The acting is largely quite good (though Johnny Knoxville's "Topper" Burks is a bit over the top), and the sets are excellent as is the costuming and make-up (though I wasn't fond of Heath Ledger's prosthetic teeth). The primary problem that I could see involved some shortcomings in the script likely contributed to somewhat by the editing. It's not that the script was bad, it's that it seemed to have some disjointedness to it. That may very well be because Peralta is telling a story that's so familiar to him that the gaps don't exist for him — his own memories automatically fill them in. For the rest of us, though, there are some spots where a little more connecting information might have been helpful. Still, the story itself is compelling, and the skateboard stunt work is awesome (the actors did much of their own skating, but the most spectacular stunts were done by professionals) which makes Lords of Dogtown worth the price of admission.

POLITICAL NOTES: The city of Venice's "solution" to the problem of certain "undesirables" hanging out at the pier is chilling. It's also an indicator that our problems with such politics and politicians weren't born of the "greed" of the 1990's. What it even more poignantly highlights is the fact that we've looked at things like this for more than thirty years and have either condoned it or failed to do anything about it.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Lords of Dogtown is rated PG-13 for "Drug and alcohol content, sexuality, violence, language, and reckless behavior, all involving teens." If your child is inclined to try to duplicate everything he sees onscreen, he's too immature to see Lords of Dogtown. I'd also not recommend it purely from a content standpoint for those children under the age of 12 or so. But for older kids, Lords of Dogtown shows what determination and hard work can accomplish (even from kids who aren't inclined to work on much and who face some almost overwhelming odds) and could provide a few object lessons as to the hazards of excess. And for adults, the movie offers a glimpse into our relatively recent past that will bring back the memories both good and bad of what those times meant for so many.

Cinderella Man

*** 1/2 out of ****

Cinderella Man Despite the fact that it's early for such things, early reviews of Cinderella Man have been so positive that the word "Oscar" has already been bandied about. Personally, I find that such talk is as often hype as it is true, but I felt somewhat obligated to see Cinderella Man just in case. After having spent two and a half hours in the comfort of an air conditioned theatre yesterday (it was almost unbearably hot and humid where I live, and I would have frankly seen almost anything just to enjoy the comfort factor), I'm here to tell you that the Oscar talk is most assuredly not mere hype.

Cinderella Man is the true story of boxer James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) who fought in the late 1920's and 1930's. His many amateur successes in the Golden Gloves program translated to a successful professional career. Braddock found himself with paydays enough to provide his wife Mae (Renée Zelwegger) and their three children with a comfortable home and nice albeit not extravagant possessions. He was even able to put significant monies aside in the form of investments for his later years. But when the Great Depression arrived, many fortunes were reversed. Braddock and his family lost everything in a matter of a couple of years, and soon were forced to leave their home for a shabby and dark basement apartment.

Disheartened, his attitude apparently spilled over into his fighting, and Braddock began to lose more often than he won. Eventually, a singularly poor performance offered when he's forced to fight with a broken hand, results in a local commissioner (Jimmy Johnston, played by Bruce McGill) pulling his boxing license. There's nothing Braddock can do about it, either, despite his manager's (Joe Gould, played by Paul Giamatti) efforts to reverse the decision. So an already destitute Braddock family becomes desperate as Jimmy searches but all too often fails to find work.

Determined to hold his family together, Braddock sacrifices his pride to get a few more dollars to pay bills. It's at the time of his deepest despair that Gould shows up with a one-time offer for Braddock. Apparently a fighter on a bill for the very next day has pulled out of the match. If Braddock will take his place with no time to prepare or train, he'll make $250 whether he wins or loses. Despite Mae's reservations, all Braddock can see are the dollar signs, and he tells Gould he'll do it. It's a good decision. After the crowd's reaction to Braddock's performance, Gould is able to sweet talk the commissioner into permitting Braddock to fight again. And with visions in his mind's eye of losing his children, seeing friends die in shanty towns, and his long suffering wife, Braddock's resolve almost literally knows no boundaries.

Braddock eventually finds himself pitted against men who are powerful and ruthless. He, on the other hand, is aging and old injuries are returning to haunt his performance. Mae lives in fear that her husband will be seriously injured or worse; Braddock himself is hard pressed to stay positive in the face of his wife's pleadings. But, as he tells a radio audience, it's not often a man is given a second chance, and he's determined to take advantage of his.

Russell Crowe has proved time and again to have the ability to almost literally become a character. His physical resemblance to the real James J. Braddock is impressive enough, but the accent and the attitude he manages to clothe himself in bring Braddock to entirely believable life. Zelwegger only looks something like Mae Braddock, but her performance, too, is stellar. Paul Giamatti (who in my mind was robbed at Oscar time last year for his eminently worthy Sideways performance) more than holds his own in an effective supporting role. When you take performances as good as these are, and combine them with a director like Ron Howard and sets and fight choreography like you see here, you have an awe-inspiring return to a moment in time. The only negative aspect of Cinderella Man is a script that is too slow in its early scenes, and which occasionally offers language that's jarringly stilted and artificial in an otherwise entirely believable movie.

The script problems, however, are small and infrequent. The acting and the sets, meanwhile, are consistent and flawless, and the story is more than a little compelling. When you take work of that quality an put it together with superb direction and excellent editing, yes, the word Oscar comes up. And it should.

NOTE: The political notes below contain some small amount of movie spoiler information.

POLITICAL NOTES: The Great Depression marked the beginnings of the welfare state. Though relief was arguably right for the times (I said arguably, not necessarily inarguably), the fact that so many welfare programs continued — and grew — after the Depression was over has proved more than a little problematic for us today. The biggest difference between welfare than and welfare now, however, was the attitude of the recipients. While many today seem to think the government owes them something, people in the 1930's were embarrassed to need the help. Braddock himself was deeply humiliated to seek aid. But he later did something so decent and honest that it literally took my breath away: he returned to the relief office and paid back every nickel. There are some very real lessons here for government, but some that are even more important, I think, for the rest of U.S...

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Cinderella Man is rated PG-13 for "intense boxing violence and some language." The boxing scenes are, indeed, very real (various print media have reported that Russell Crowe suffered something like a dozen mild concussions when he filmed his fights) and the injuries aren't pretty. But there's so much here to be learned of responsibility and genuine decency — not to mention real manhood! — that kids from perhaps about age 10 and up should be encouraged to see the film. Certainly, I'd recommend Cinderella Man for adults of all ages in the hopes that they, too, will take something away with them after having seen such heroism on screen. It seems almost icing on the cake that the movie is a good one even if you look at it purely as a couple of hours of entertainment!

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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