Cinderella Man
dir. Ron Howard
Opens Fri June 3.

If a gnarled creature were grown in a lab, bred and designed by unfeeling scientists to spend its soulless existence craving and consuming only Oscars... well, it would still come up short to Ron Howard's latest film. Cinderella Man, the much-ballyhooed reuniting of the team behind A Beautiful Mind, takes a story that's almost too perfect for cinematic recounting-over-the-hill boxer Gentleman Jim Braddock's legendary comeback during the Great Depression-and goes relentlessly, ploddingly by the numbers. Wonder Bread missed out on a prime promotional opportunity.

As the title character, Russell Crowe delivers another master class in 100 percent Method, although he's hobbled a bit by the script's overly adoring, straight-arrow take on Braddock. Sainthood, to put it mildly, isn't his strong suit. Faring worse is Renée Zellweger, as Braddock's adoring wife. Howard's proven track record aside, it's shocking that an A-list actress would consent to a role this thin, which mainly consists of languishing in an unheated basement hovel hovering over her adorable, ominously coughing moppets. The supporting cast, thankfully, is given a little more room to breathe, with both Paul Giamatti and Bruce McGill delivering small sparks of individuality amid the overall too-smooth polish. (Special props to Craig Bierko's fascinatingly boorish heavy Max Bauer, a champion playboy who crows about killing two men in the ring. Where's his movie?)

Points for his involvement with Arrested Development aside, Howard remains an extremely frustrating figure; a man of clear intelligence who never, ever takes a chance when he can remain safely in the proven middle. His latest title shot is so determined to make the audience stand up and cheer that it forgets how to generate anything lasting other than sheer old-timey nostalgia. When the penniless family is shown huddled around a pan of frying baloney, a conscious metaphor is too much to hope for. ANDREW WRIGHT

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
dir. Ken Kwapis
Opens Wed June 1.

Based on a popular young adult novel, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is built on a truly ridiculous conceit. A group of four best-friends-forever (their moms met in a prenatal aerobics class) collectively purchases a pair of Levi's. Two of the actors are skinny, one is tall and athletic, and the fourth previously starred in Real Women Have Curves. Miraculously, the jeans fit them all. The girls form a cheesy sorority, vowing never to pick their noses while wearing the pants, and to love themselves and their fellow sisters always. They then jet off to their respective summer vacations, except for the rebel sister Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), who has to stay at home, babysitting and stocking shelves at a Wal-Mart clone.

The structure is a flimsy excuse to break the film into four multicultural vignettes of self-discovery. More justifiably, it also prevents director Ken Kwapis from any further attempt to portray adolescent bonding. (His initial efforts, which involve circling the group of girls as their chatter overlaps to the point of incoherence, are less than convincing.) Alexis Bledel as the withdrawn Lena is more endearing than her slight story of star-crossed love gives her the right to be, while Blake Lively never makes much of her daughter-of-a-suicide-driven-to-slutdom cliché of a character. Amber Tamblyn is great as a budding documentarian, at least until her pint-size sidekick is stricken with cancer and the narrative wanders off into goopy spiritual melodrama. And the story about a mixed-race kid (America Ferrera) who has to chase down the affections of her white dad is surprisingly sweet. Taken as a whole, though, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is too scattershot to make much of an impression. ANNIE WAGNER

Lords of Dogtown
dir. Catherine Hardwicke
Opens Fri June 3.

The success of the entertaining, if awfully egocentric, skater documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys has apparently given director/star Stacy Peralta the green light for an entire cottage industry about what a cool guy he was/is. The Peralta-scripted Lords of Dogtown absolutely nails the hazy, stoned '70s atmosphere of the subject material, but will most likely cause mondo migraines for anyone not firmly within the target demographic.

Director Catherine Hardwicke's (Thirteen) thinly fictionalized film follows a tribe of ne'er-do-well skating gods (including the suspiciously conscientious Peralta) as they empty pools, bust 180s, and break hearts throughout So Cal. Dueling contracts and monster egos soon splinter the group, but the mutual love of the rush remains. Hardwicke, taking the reins after a late bailout by David Fincher, clearly idolizes the energy of these kids, possibly a little too much. Her manic hand-held style and Larry Clark-lite shirtless fetishizing runs the risk of turning off anyone not already amped to the rafters. Amusing cameos by the likes of Johnny Knoxville, Rebecca De Mornay, and the late Mitch Hedberg get quickly swept aside by the unholy Do the Dew rush.

Peralta's story may be authentically inspirational, but it ultimately proves too thin to support multiple tellings. It's hard not to feel that we've learned just about enough of these dudes far before the final credits roll. What lingers are memories of Heath Ledger, who delivers a flagrantly terrible performance as the older spazzed-out mentor to the boys. It's the kind of acting that can wreck careers-and sometimes save self-inflated movies from themselves. ANDREW WRIGHT

Rock School
dir. Don Argott
Opens Fri June 3.

Odious reality show offshoots aside, this may well be the golden age of the audience-friendly documentary, with such wildly disparate films as The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and the upcoming Murderball proving the advantages of increasingly mobile cameras and endearingly oddball subject material. A big-time crowd pleaser at SIFF, Don Argott's kickass Rock School benefits immeasurably from its uneasy relationship with its gloryhog subject, Philly-based music instructor Paul Green. Richard Linklater's fictionalized School of Rock may have preemptively stolen some of Green's enfant terrible thunder, but this is the real deal. For all his peculiar, Satan-invoking charms, Jack Black fades in comparison.

Filmed over a nine-month span, Argott and producing partner Sheena Joyce's all-access cameras follow a handful of kids-creepy Sabbath-loving twins, straying Quaker granola girl, formerly suicidal wiseacre-as they hone their craft under Green's bitching, screaming tutelage. (The one student noticeably spared from his abuse, 12-year-old C. J. Tywoniak, is understandable, because the kid is obviously already a GUITAR GOD.) Fitfully self-aware and constantly on, Green makes for a fascinating focal point: a stymied performer turned leather-lunged tyrant in the classroom. (His behavior at a recent interview, in which he proceeded to stomp all over questions posed to the impressively patient Joyce and Argott, shows that if his demeanor is actually an act, it's an extraordinarily dedicated one.)

Ultimately, what elevates Argott's film above awesomely entertaining freak show is the fact that, lil' dictator behavior aside, Green's method of browbeating his charges into improvement yields undeniable results, both socially and technically. It is to the filmmakers' considerable credit that, by the time the kids perform a legendarily tough Zappa number in Germany, even the most protective parents might consider signing up at the nearest branch. ANDREW WRIGHT

dir. Jonathan Nossiter
June 3-15 at the Northwest Film Forum.

More a religion than a business, and liable to cause massive rifts between nations, the wine industry appears at first glance to be prime documentary material. But beneath all the controversy and intrigue is an unfortunate fact: As a movie subject, wine-like the blowhards who extol its extra-alcoholic virtues-is filled with astounding levels of arrogance, self-regard, and excess. Case in point: Mondovino.

Directed, edited, and photographed (translation: shaky camcorder footage) by Jonathan Nossiter, Mondovino is far too ambitious for its own good. Its central topics-wine conglomerates versus small family wineries, America versus the world, good wine versus bad wine-are certainly film-worthy, but without a proper editor and videographer, the filmmaker's obvious wine-derlust forces him to wander far too freely. Stumbling into the same minefield many a documentarian finds him/herself in nowadays, Nossiter lets the freedom of digital cameras overwhelm his subject matter. The result is that much of his interviewees' information gets lost in a litter of unnecessary quick zooms, unwarranted tricks, and shot after shot after shot of dogs lounging about various homes. There's a solid documentary buried in there somewhere, and in the end I was marginally glad to have willed myself through the experience, but those without a rabid taste for wine will probably find a payoff unworthy of the effort. BRADLEY STEINBACHER