Friday, December 23, 2005

Lords of Dogtown / *** (UR)

Jay Adams: Emile Hirsch
Tony Alva: Victor Rasuk
Stacy Peralta: John Robinson
Sid: Michael Angarano
Kathy Alva: Nikki Reed
Skip Engblom: Heath Ledger
Philaine: Rebecca De Mornay
Topper Burks: Johnny Knoxville

TriStar Pictures presents a film directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Written by Stacy Peralta. Running time: 107 min. Unrated director’s cut, originally rated PG-13 (for drug and alcohol content, sexuality, violence, language and reckless behavior, all involving teens).

To be honest, I was never any good at skateboarding. But when the 80’s skate craze, born of the stars of professional boarding known as the “Bones Brigade”, hit Topsham, Maine; I was there with my entire non-in-crowd clique. I had the “rat tail” hair cut and went to the local bike shop, with its corner dedicated to capitalizing on the skate punk craze, to pick up my first wide board. I was torn between that cool squiggle of the Alva boards that I can only assume is Tony Alva’s actual signature of his last name, and the pure alien sounding nature to the Powell-Peralta boards. I eventually went with Powell-Peralta for my first board, but when I landed a sad ramp launch in just the right way to snap that board in half about a year later, I went back an got the most badass Alva model I could find.

Lords of Dogtown tells the story of skateboarding’s rise from just a novelty sport to the father of the X-games sport that it is known as today. It concentrates on the three inaugural stars of skateboarding in the seventies: Tony Alva, Jay Adams and Stacy Peralta. Beginning when the three future stars were merely wanna be surfers for the Zepher board shop team in Venice, California. The reckless nature of this particular youth culture is evidenced immediately as we are introduced to these characters and the supporting cast as they attempt to surf the choice waves under the Venice Beach Pier, where the obstacles can be deadly.

When the season is against the waves weather-wise, the reckless nature of these kids is not abated. Street skating is their escape when the waves are down, and they are always searching for ways to make skating more like surfing. The key to this trick is the invention of the polyurethane wheels which allow the boards to grip the concrete so they can carve back and forth just as they do on the waves. These kids are skilled enough in their practices that it takes no time for them to develop a new style of skateboarding based on surfing and soon Zepher shop owner and Guru Skip Engblom is putting together a team for competition. As they gain notoriety for their revolutionary style of skating, they become known as the Z-Boys of Dogtown.

Dogtown is not in the greatest economic condition and as such these children come from a harsher climate of life than most think about when they think of Southern California. Adams (Emile Hirsch, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) seems to struggle the most without a father and with a mother who either did one too many hits of acid in the sixties or just stopped maturing at the age of twelve. Alva (Victor Rasuk, Raising Victor Vargas) has a strained relationship with his father, who would like his son to aspire to something that could get him out of the slums. Peralta (John Robinson, Elephant) is the only one of the team who has a job, and Skip gives him a hard time about being “one of us,” even denying him a spot on the team until he wins the first skate competition as an individual, not on the Zepher team. Engblom doesn’t let Peralta go home that evening without an invitation to be on the team.

The Z-Boys live with a constant need to push the limits of life. It reminds me of Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of The Outsiders in the way these kids try to breathe in life through reckless abandon. Be it partying too hard for their own good, exploring drugs and sex at ages that would frighten any parent into finally sitting down with their kids to discuss the drug and sex issues, or just looking for the perfect carve. While all of these avenues are explored in detail in this film, it is that final category that leads the Zepher team to invent the practice of skating a drained swimming pool during a summer drought that leave many of the area’s private swimming pools unused. It is in this final category where the film also finds its greatest moments with some skating sequences as good as any of those old Bones Brigade videos that I used to watch with my skating crew and dream of a life being paid only to skate.

Another area where Lords of Dogtown excels is in its casting. The three leads; Hirsch, Rasuk and Robinson; come off of some rousing independent efforts, and director Catherine Hardwicke does a wonderful job carrying that independent flavor over to a more mainstream picture here with her actors’ cut-from-life portrayal of their characters. Hardwicke does an even better job pulling career transformative portrayals from a couple of her supporting cast members, Heath Ledger and Rebecca De Mornay. De Mornay (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) is nearly unrecognizable as Adams’s tripped-out mother, Philaine. And Ledger (The Brothers Grimm) proves that if Oliver Stone filmed The Doors today he would have a perfect replacement for Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. The film is as much about the downfall of Ledger’s character, Skip Engblom, as it is the Z three; and I think it is a glimpse of what Morrison might have been if he hadn’t become a world famous rock star.

Hardwicke also delivers that raw nature of independent film to her directing style, which tells the story in the chaotic nature that reflects the lives these people led. Hardwicke, a former production designer, is coming off rave reviews from her first directing effort Thirteen. Lords of Dogtown is a less significant story than that teen drama, but proves her strength in empathizing with and capturing the realities of youth culture.

Screenwriter Stacy Peralta also comes off of critical successes as a sports documentarian, including his own documentary on this same material Dogtown and the Z-Boys. For his first dramatized script he shows a good ability to capture naturalistic dialogue, although his structure favors the documentary format and he over-sentimentalizes the conclusion of the story, which involves a fourth Z-Boy, Sid (Michael Angarano, Sky High), who succumbs to cancer.

Unfortunately for Lords of Dogtown its audience appeal is probably fairly narrow. I’m not sure how much people who aren’t into extreme sports are going to care about these characters, or even how their lives are changed by their unlikely fame. But for those who are into skateboarding and youth culture, this story holds many intriguing moments and a good deal of gnarly skating footage. For the true disciples of the sport, the film is peppered with cameo appearances of the sport’s legends, including all three of the Z three featured. Peralta in particular provides the source of his signature headband look as the director of the Charlie’s Angels episode in which he apeared at the height of his fame that suggested it to keep the hair out of his face. But my favorite cameo was by boarding giant Tony Hawk as an astronaut who shows negative ability on a board.

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