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Published: 6/3/2005

Movie review: The Lords of Dogtown ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A number of things struck me right away about The Lords of Dogtown, the new skateboarding epic (and yes, epic is the right word) about a real-life pack of California teenagers with time on their hands and energy to spare who took the novelty of skateboarding and transformed it into the fearless underground expression of an entire lifestyle:

No. 1 - As Skip Engblom, co-owner of the Zephyr Skate Shop in Venice, Calif., why is Heath Ledger doing an impression of Val Kilmer with a head injury?

No. 2 - So you mean to tell me that all eyes in 1975 focused on this small band of skateboarders - that the universe spiraled around a few teen supernovas?

And No. 3 - I sort of buy it.

The Lords of Dogtown is overblown in the best sense. It has the restless, manic velocity that ideally complements its rowdy, grungy, sullen subjects. ("We're going to be on summer vacation for the next 20 years!") It also does something unexpected: It immerses itself so totally in the styles and moods and street-level vantage of these kids that when their success comes, it creates a feeling the entire planet is watching a corner of California.

Basically, it's like a rock star movie without rock stars, and a surf picture without the surfing (most of the time). It follows the Behind-the-Music format of too-much-success-too-many-ascots-too-fast in nearly every way - and proves just as addicting.

Only without the music or moment when the browbeaten record producer sits down his young band of millionaire egomaniacs and says, "Do you remember when it was about music?"

Wait, scratch that. It has that.

Only with skateboarding.

Nobody says, "Remember when it was about skateboards?" They don't have to.

The rise and fall of American celebrity is our 21st-century bedtime story. Catherine Hardwicke's Lords of Dogtown, with a screenplay from one of the actual Lords of Dogtown, Stacy Peralta, not only sticks carefully to the trajectory of a quarter century of pop train wrecks and sellouts, it's been told before: as the acclaimed 2001 documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys, already a skateboarder classic - and because Peralta (who directed that film) had a hand in both, there's a touch of self-aggrandizement:

At the center of this universe is Peralta (played by John Robinson, the waifish blond from Gus Van Sant's Elephant); he's chivalrous and torn by success. There's Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk of Raising Victor Vargas), the hotshot who crumbles quickest. And Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), who the movie identifies as "the seed," the conscience of modern skateboarding and original skater punk who never sold out but lived to wonder if he should have. They are the residue of the 1960s, surrounded by hippy culture, drugs, and broken homes, but without their own storyline.

They also shared Dogtown.

It is a real neighborhood in southern California, a small, insulated beachfront community nestled between Santa Monica and Venice. Thirty years ago, when the events shown in The Lords of Dogtown take place, it was low-rent, a "ghetto by the sea," full of tattoo parlors and surf shops, and a lot of concrete. Hardwicke and production designer Chris Gorak do a remarkable job of re-creating that seediness, from the trash-strewn streets to the decaying amusement parks at Imperial Beach, its roller coasters snapped in two.

And as with any decent Behind the Music, there are a couple of scenes in Lords of Dogtown when you watch the entire landscape of - for lack of a less dorky moniker - youth culture head into the future. In the first moment of revelation, a skateboard salesman (played by the late stand-up comic Mitch Hedberg) walks into the Zephyr Surf Shop in the mid-1970s and displays the latest advance in cheap, fast thrills: soft polyurethane skateboarding wheels.

They're a fundamental part of skateboards; it's hard to imagine they weren't always with us. But when the surfers who hang out at the Zephyr Surf Shop spot them for the first time, it's a eureka moment. They strap them to wooden boards and zoom around the block, and their first instinct (and this is important) is not to stand straight, but crouch low.

They're surfing asphalt.

The other moment of eureka happens in the summer of 1975 when California was going through one of its periodic droughts. By now, the surfers at Zephyr had become the Z-Boys, a crew known for translating their surf moves to the street and shaking up the benign world of skateboarding competition with a spontaneity closer to a dance routine than the gentile tricks that skating was familiar with.

They later find a large, kidney-shaped swimming pool, drained because of drought restrictions. When the owners are away, they sneak in and launch themselves along its smooth walls.

It's the first skate park. They call it the Dogbowl, and these sequences are as exuberant as the opening credits of The Monkees.

Everything riveting and evocative about Lords of Dogtown are in those real-life details and that history. The movie is horrendously overacted, and overdirected by Hardwicke. Events are overcondensed and characterizations oversimplified.

The flaws are pretty obvious: Hardwicke's previous film was Thirteen, another cautionary tale about being young and heedless, and she has a cheap After School Special ethos beneath all that grit. But her casts are fresh and her instincts so good; you cringe every time she overreaches and doesn't seem satisfied with the joys of being young and heedless. A heavy moral hand does not suit her. What does is the thrill of being young and clever: These guys pointed the way for decades of independent underground aesthetics. But mainly they go fast. When the camera hugs the ground, when the wheels are a hair from the lens, you feel that rush and you're not wondering what's ahead, either.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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