LORDS OF DOGTOWN Even if you don't know anything about skateboard culture, all 90 minutes of the 2002 independent film Dogtown and Z-Boys will mesmerize you. Directed by former Z-Boy Stacy Peralta, that smashing documentary chronicles the rise of the Venice, CA, teens who almost single-handedly revived skateboarding as a national phenomenon thanks to their radical reinterpretation of the sport during the 1970s. Now, Peralta has penned a Hollywood account of the Z-Boys, yet the resultant film fails to capture anything beyond random surface pleasures. In the documentary, it's clear that Jay Adams and Tony Alva were not only the sport's media celebrities but also the best skateboarders. In this film, Adams (played by Emile Hirsch) and Alva (Victor Rasuk) are prominently featured, but so is Peralta (John Robinson). The other members of the Zephyr Team are no more than blurs in the background. Initially, the choice of Catherine Hardwicke as director seemed inspired: As the helmer of Thirteen, it was clear she wouldn't back away from the grittiness of the project. Yet the ample party scenes that drove Thirteen seem extraneous here: We know these kids liked to get drunk, get high and get laid, so why do we need endless sequences of this when they serve only to take the focus away from the real story? Lords of Dogtown is well acted (especially by Heath Ledger as the group's stoner-mentor), and Hardwicke ably recreates a specific time and place. Yet the movie rarely conveys the import of what these lower-income kids accomplished: As depicted here, their cultural revolution seems no more noteworthy than a day spent at the mall.
MOOLAADE In the realm of international cinema, 82-year-old Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene shares bragging rights with Portugal's 96-year-old Manoel de Oliveira as one of the old lions of the industry, a prolific, award-winning filmmaker who has never achieved the stateside recognition of, say, Bergman or Fellini. The critical community has done its part to promote his works, as has our own Charlotte Film Society. The CFS, which previously brought the director's 2001 effort Faat Kine to town, now does likewise with Moolaade, which earned an award at Cannes and placed on over two dozen critics' "10 Best" lists for 2004. Sembene doesn't care whether he draws great performances out of his cast, and neither should viewers. Even with all the dialogue spoken in French and Bambara, it's obvious that the pregnant pauses really shouldn't be there and that some of the cast members (especially the small kids) have their hands full simply trying to remember their lines. But Moolaade, like past Sembene titles, is about the surge of human compassion above all else, and the writer-director manages to share his yarn in the tradition of a great storyteller sitting by the fire, adding plenty of color and detail to keep the audience captive. Moolaade centers on a grotesque tradition still practiced in many African villages: the genital mutilation of little girls so they won't feel sexual pleasure when they eventually marry. The male elders vocally enforce this practice while a small band of stern-faced women carry it out, but when six small girls turn to her for sanctuary ("Moolaade"), Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly) decides enough's enough and does her best to stop the madness. Striking imagery and memorable characters enliven the proceedings, though Sembene never downplays the tragedy at the heart of the film. 1/2
CINDERELLA MAN No filmmaker in his right mind would want his boxing picture to be released a scant few months after Million Dollar Baby, but Cinderella Man is so structurally and tonally different from Clint Eastwood's masterwork that it might as well be about jai alai. Almost every summer has one tony Oscar-bait production geared to older audiences, and Cinderella Man, which relates the real-life story of pugilist James J. Braddock, adequately fills that designation. Russell Crowe's touching portrayal is instrumental in recruiting the audience's sympathies from the get-go, and director Ron Howard and his A Beautiful Mind writer Akiva Goldsman take care to spend as much time detailing the ravages of the Depression as they do Braddock's exploits in the ring. This film may not break new ground, but in its ability to provide old-fashioned entertainment, the gloves come flying off.
THE LONGEST YARD Faithfulness to director Robert Aldrich's hard-hitting 1974 film, in which a former football star leads a group of convicts in a match against the sadistic guards, isn't the problem: Major plot points are kept intact, snatches of dialogue find themselves lifted wholesale, and characters' fates remain the same. But when this version does deviate from its source material, the results are disastrous - and all but kill any chance the film had in maintaining its modest pleasures. The leading character (Burt Reynolds in the R-rated original, Adam Sandler in this PG-13 piffle) has been softened, while the rampaging homophobia is astonishing (and annoying). Insult comedy can be uproarious in the right hands, but here it's merely witless, the cinematic equivalent of the school bully giving a weaker classmate a wedgie and then declaring himself the epitome of fine-honed drollery.