CINDERELLA MAN (PG-13, 144 minutes)
True, "Cinderella Man" is a classically "uplifting" drama told in a stolid mainstream style -- a handsome, rather prim, sepia-toned look at a bygone era. But that's okay. It is quite a yarn, and based on a true story, at that -- a touching, highly involving tale of love and boxing set at the depth of the Depression. Director Ron Howard can't resist a few heavyhanded touches to lecture us on bread lines and Hoovervilles (squatters camps of the homeless and unemployed), but for teens, even that could make the movie more atmospheric. The fainthearted among them may find it tough to watch the boxing, though, which is filmed with thudding intensity, often as if a left hook is coming smack at you. The impression is one of bloodied faces, cracked ribs and blurred vision. In a reenactment of a sports newsreel, champ Max Baer (Craig Bierko) kills an opponent. Outside the ring, "Cinderella Man" shows police beating "agitators," intense poverty, including a sick child shivering in a cold flat, mild scenes of marital sexual innuendo, rare profanity, an ethnic slur, smoking and beer drinking.
In a muscular, understated performance, Crowe plays James J. Braddock, who came back from a failed boxing career to capture the heavyweight title from Baer in 1935 -- and all, the film contends, out of a singleminded drive to feed his family honorably.
THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS (PG, 113 minutes)
Girls 12 and older will likely relish this adequately performed, slightly sugary film, based on the popular 2001 novel by Ann Brashares, in which a teenage quartet of best teen friends spend their first summer apart. They stay connected by sharing (via mail) a pair of jeans that magically fits their various figures perfectly. (Brashares has since published "The Second Summer of the Sisterhood" and "Girls in Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood"). The movie moves back and forth among the girls and their romances, heartbreaks and breakthroughs. Director Ken Kwapis at times lets the sweetness grow a bit too sticky, but more often he lends the story enough edge to make it quite affecting as an exploration of girls' lives.
That edge results in a rather intense sort of PG film and a case-by-case choice for parents of kids under 12. Key elements involve divorce, the death of a parent, a terminally ill child, and a lesser theme about alcoholism. There is considerable mild sexual innuendo, including a subtly implied overnight tryst, though the young actors do little more than kiss on screen. A rule the girls invent for sharing the jeans goes : "Any removal of the pants must be done by the wearer herself" -- nudge, nudge. A beach montage shows a man putting sunblock on a woman's back, her bikini top unhooked. One girl goes swimming in her underwear, joined, chastely, by a boy in slacks. Adult characters drink beer.
At its best, the uneven "Sisterhood . . . " celebrates the coming of age of strong female personas. America Ferrera shines brightest as Carmen, the would-be writer who narrates the story. She eagerly visits the father (Bradley Whitford) who left her and her mother (Rachel Ticotin) long ago, and is crushed to learn he plans to remarry. Cynical Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) works at a big discount store, where she videotapes a "suckumentary" about the people there and befriends, unwillingly at first, a frail but feisty preteen (Jenna Boyd). Bridget (Blake Lively) goes to soccer camp, where, unable to face her mother's recent death, she chases a guy way too old for her. Shy, artistic Lena (Alexis Bledel), visits her grandparents in the Greek islands and finds romance, against their wishes.