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Thursday, June 2, 2005 06:59 am

movie review

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Ron Howard’s best films focus on everyday heroes, men who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances yet can summon enough strength to conquer seemingly insurmountable challenges. These exemplars of the ideal American man have included fathers struggling to get through the day (Parenthood), firefighters battling ravaging flames (Backdraft), reporters striving to tell the truth (The Paper), and astronauts struggling to survive in space (Apollo 13). Howard delivers what his audience wants, and it’s no wonder he’s one of film’s most popular directors.

Howard’s latest entry in this genre, Cinderella Man, proves his most satisfying work. The film tells the story of James Braddock, a Depression-era boxer who, like so many of his contemporaries, lost nearly everything when the stock market crashed in late 1929. Laid low by circumstances beyond his control, Braddock found the will to continue, picking up odd jobs here and there in an effort to support his wife and three children. Fate, however, gives Braddock a too-good-to-be-true shot, one on which he must risk everything.

Russell Crowe shines as Braddock, bringing calm, dignity, and strength to the role. Renée Zellweger matches him step for step as Braddock’s devoted wife, Mae, a woman of uncommon devotion. Paul Giamatti, the best character actor working today, lends invaluable support as Braddock’s trainer, Joe Gould, and Craig Bierko brings a convincing degree of menace to the role of heavyweight champion Max Baer, Braddock’s ultimate opponent.

Howard’s attention to detail, his meticulous re-creation of the dingy American streets of the 1930s and the harsh conditions that people faced, gives Cinderella Man a degree of realism that makes Braddock’s struggle meaningful and poignant. Howard doesn’t manipulate the material or his audience; he tells Braddock’s tale in a straightforward way, with little embellishment. And the payoff is clear: Cinderella Man is the best movie released so far this year.

Also in theaters this week. . .

Kicking & Screaming [PG] Soccer coach Phil Weston (Will Ferrell) faces his father Buck’s (Robert Duvall) team. Buck’s ace player is a son from a new marriage. Parkway Pointe, Route 66 Drive In

Lords of Dogtown [PG-13] Tracks the rise of surf and skateboarding culture in Venice, Calif., in the 1970s. ShowPlace West

Madagascar [PG] Animated comedy about a lion (voice of Ben Stiller), a zebra (Chris Rock), a giraffe (David Schwimmer), and a hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith). When one goes missing from the zoo, the other three break free, and learn what it’s like to live in the wild. Parkway Pointe, ShowPlace East

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants [PG] Four girlfriends plan to stay connected to each other by passing around a pair of secondhand jeans that fits each perfectly. Parkway Pointe, ShowPlace East

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