Ron Howard, director of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, knows a crowd-pleasing story when he sees one.

In 1935, boxer Jimmy Braddock completed one of the most amazing comebacks in sports history, going from a Depression-era soup line to a title bout with heavyweight champion Max Baer, who was famous for doing severe—even deadly—damage to his foes. Braddock inspired not just sports fans, but a whole nation. He was a savior to his family, who had fallen on hard times.

Howard, reuniting with the Oscar-winning team of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and star Russell Crowe, in combination with the talents of actors Paul Giamatti and Rene Zellweger, has turned Braddock's story into a heavyweight Oscar contender. It's a handsomely crafted film, winning cheers from viewers and critics.

Most Christian film critics rate it as a knockout.

Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) calls it "an excellent drama that relies on heart and action instead of schmaltz and melodrama. It's not quite a heavyweight champion worthy of Best Picture, but it is one of the year's first serious Oscar contenders because of its strong performances and skilled directing. Cinderella Man deserves a space on the shelf next to excellent dramatic sports films like The Natural, Hoosiers, and Seabiscuit."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) raves, "Cinderella Man is a rousing picture and a genuinely inspiring one, and represents some of Howard's best work. It's one Cinderella story that goes the distance without turning into a pumpkin, and fully earns its happily ever after."

Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says it's "captivating on many levels," despite her count of 30 to 40 "obscenities and profanities throughout the movie." And she observes, "Despite the awesome prayers and faith of his wife, there is somewhat of a humanistic, 'man can pull himself up through sheer determination and belief' tone to the Jimmy character." But she concludes that the film is "an amazing study in the heart motivations of men vs. women."

Jonathan Rodriguez (Christian Spotlight) says, "We have all heard of 'self-made men' and Braddock seems like a perfect example of someone who felt that way about himself." But he concludes that this "is a great movie, plain and simple. We are given a hero to sympathize with, a good family man who adores his wife and kids and who is willing to do whatever it takes to provide for them. And the final scenes are genuinely thrilling."

Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus) says, "The true story of Braddock's riches-to-rags-and-back-again career is compelling enough in its own right. But the real power of Howard's rendition of the story, and Russell Crowe's performance as Braddock, lies not in the inevitably predictable and triumphant boxing scenes but in a series of very real, quiet human moments—moments that portray the universal struggle for dignity and peace."

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At the same site, Darrell Manson writes, "It is a well made, uplifting film that speaks to the hope that the American dream holds out to those who need a little bit of luck or a second chance. But … I just felt there was something missing. Maybe it's because as well done as it is, it doesn't make the top of any of the genres you could put it in. It just doesn't make it to greatness."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) writes, "What's especially commendable about the film is that [Braddock] is motivated, not by the quest for personal glory, but to support his wife and children. Those unsettled by the grim denouement of Million Dollar Baby will be relieved to find Cinderella Man a good old-fashioned boxing movie with an infinitely more upbeat feel by the final bell."

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, "Ron Howard has done it again. … With outstanding performances from a trio of premium actors, he's brought yet another true story to the big screen, loaded it with both tear-jerking and heart-swelling moments, packed it with honorable leading characters and artistically conveyed some wonderful morals. … In short, Cinderella Man is as powerful as its hero's punches."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) is thrilled. "This inspirational biopic is the best film I've seen this year and a sure contender for an award or two come season's end."

Barbara Nicolosi (Church of the Masses) liked the movie, but doesn't like boxing: "The heroism of the main character revolves around his success in beating other men's faces to a bloody pulp. As a secondary high-stakes goal, he also sets new standards in hitting hard to the body and breaking ribs. The movie tries to set his heroism up as a man conquering fear … but yeah, he still triumphs by nearly killing other guys. I loved so much of this movie, but I hate, hate, hate watching long sequences in which two men hit each other harder and harder in close-up … It's exciting to watch in a perverse way."

While other Christian critics are cheering the film, I saw a number of troubling problems. My full review is at Looking Closer.

Many mainstream critics are calling it an early Oscar favorite. Roger Ebert writes, "Most serious movies live in a world of cynicism and irony, and most good-hearted movie characters live in bad movies. Here is a movie where a good man prevails in a world where every day is an invitation to despair."

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One size fits all in Traveling Pants

Who would want to see a movie about four teenage girls going shopping for pants? Who would sit still for a story about a pair of pants that fits any girl that tries them on?

Teen girls, obviously. But what's surprising is that their mothers, brothers, fathers, and boyfriends are sitting still for The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the new film by Ken Kwapis, adapted from the novel by Ann Brashares. As these girls explore their varying stories, celebrating their friendship and planning for different futures, they find themselves in engaging, challenging situations that elevate this film above others in its genre. In short, critics say that Sisterhood is a case of one film fits all.

Most Christian critics liked it, and are encouraging viewers to try the film on for size.

"After a year marked by Mean Girls and Saved, it's also refreshing to see teen girls be nice and caring to one another," writes Camerin Courtney (Christianity Today Movies). "While a few of their lines are pure cheese and sound way too wise or sophisticated for 16-year-olds, their genuine celebrate-the-good-times, cry-with-you-through-the-bad friendships almost make that OK. And this quartet of young actresses is impressive … I can't wait to see more from these talented, strong women."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says this "sweet but contrived film, despite its bubblegum title and breezy Judy Blume veneer, tackles heavy issues like divorce, death, ethnic identity and teen sexuality (which may be inappropriate for younger teens) but ultimately imparts a life-affirming message about friendship and family."

Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) describes it as "a sweet movie with adventure, romance, and a compelling picture of the power of friendship in the very real issues of teen life."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says the filmmakers "fully understand their target audience and push all the expected buttons to make the experience especially meaningful for them. To their credit, they push those buttons respectfully by honestly depicting the depth of emotional pain and joy that young women experience. All four actresses do commendable work and capture the essence not only of their characters but the bond of friendship their characters enjoy."

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Steven Isaac (Plugged In), on the other hand, isn't much impressed, saying it's "sweet and sappy, but it just doesn't mean very much."

Pants also pleases mainstream critics. Scott Moore (Washington Post) says, "The emotional story and fine acting are enough to make this a must-see movie for teen girls. The real surprise is that they can make a grown man cry."

Rock School—following kids with guitars

Remember School of Rock, the comedy with the alarming premise that Jack Black might be posing as a high school teacher and training young children to be rock stars?

Guess what: Paul Green is not a fictional character. He's not Jack Black, but he is teaching kids how to strut and jam like rock stars. Rock School is a documentary about Green and his Philadelphia-based program—the Paul Green School of Rock. You'll see Green running his school like a cranky drill sergeant, foul language and all. But you'll also be surprised at how the kids respond.

Lisa Ann Cockrel (Christianity Today Movies) says, "It's impossible to deny that Green is a complicated and compelling character, and Rock School is a well-crafted documentary. Watching [the students] band together to rock—and the faces of the audience and participants when they realize what these kids are capable of—is a joy."

But she also notes Green's "abusive teaching style. He openly mocks one student's Quaker faith. He makes fun of another's clinical depression and suicidal tendencies. He threatens the students with a recitation of the story of how he lost his virginity if they don't shape up … [T]here's lots of profanity-laced yelling and stomping around. Green's a bona fide jerk."

Mainstream critics reviewing the film resemble an enthusiastic mosh pit.

Kids dance up a storm in Mad Hot Ballroom

Mad Hot Ballroom follows some New York 11-year-olds as they learn the steps of ballroom dancing, tell their own stories, and work their way toward a citywide competition. You'll see them do the merengue, rumba, tango, the foxtrot and the swing, and you'll see them learn and grow as well.

Carolyn Arends (Christianity Today Movies) says it's a "charming, sometimes hilarious, always captivating celebration of childhood, community, music and movement. Only the most lead-footed (or stone-hearted) wallflower could resist this dance."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) writes, "When you see the way these kids swing, tango, rumba, and merengue, you just may want to join in on the fun. I know I did. … What's amazing is that the kids not only learn to dance like professionals—and boy, do they—but how very much their lives are transformed in the process."

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Mainstream critics are almost unanimous in their praise. Ty Burr (Boston Globe) raves, "Take the kids. The 10-year-old I had the pleasure to watch the movie with was transfixed, racked with suspense, and mirroring the moves before it was half over."

Lords of Dogtown can't top the stunts in Dogtown and Z-Boys

In 1975, along Santa Monica's popular Venice Beach, skateboarding suddenly became a phenomenon that would conquer the world—at least the world of thrill-seeking teenagers. Stacy Peralta's 2002 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys told the story, and Catherine Hardwicke's Lords of Dogtown tells it again. Hardwicke, who directed Thirteen, is no stranger to stories of rebellious teens. But one has to ask: If audiences just watched a documentary with the real skateboarding stars and actual footage of the original events, why do we need a dramatic re-creation with Hollywood stars and not-so-amazing demonstrations of skateboard stunts?

The film, which is earning praise for stars Emile Hirsch, Victor Rasuk, John Robinson, and Heath Ledger as the stoned, dazed, confused, and reckless innovators, does not much impress its religious press critics.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says this "vapid film … never rises above a conventional study of adolescent rebelliousness, with its more interesting elements—the characters' broken home lives, the corrosive allure of fame and money—receiving shallow treatment. If you are interested in this subject, you'd be much better off skateboarding over to the video store and renting Peralta's documentary."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) writes, "Lords of Dogtown neatly captures a precise moment in American culture that reverberates to this day. That's not praise. That's a problem."

Dogtown has divided mainstream critics between those who prefer the documentary and those who think that Hardwicke's version is worth seeing. A.O. Scott (New York Times) calls the film "a blast."

More reviews of recent releases

Madagascar:Andrew Coffin (World) says, "The movie falls into the category of the 'mostly harmless'—diverting entertainment for kids that is unlikely to inspire them or infuriate their parents."

Hotel Rwanda: Dennis Haack (Ransom Fellowship) writes, "Please see Hotel Rwanda. It's a fine example of cinematic art, and the story it tells is one we must be sure not to forget. It is both profoundly sad and deeply redemptive, the story of one man who opened his arms when the world turned its back."