Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 7:51 pm 
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Movies of this kind aren't usually this good. They tend to look cheesy and have corny plots that slink toward clich├ęd payoffs. Lords of Dogtown instead has compelling cinematography and staging, a dynamic, non-stop physicality, and consistently fine acting. In the end, don't expect profundity or perfection, but do look for the strong evocation of a lifestyle and an era. In the Seventies when skateboarding first exuded magic and became a maverick sport with stars, a whole school of wide angle photography grew up to do justice to their gravity-defying feats for skateboard magazines, and this film is shot with wide angle lenses to evoke that look and capture the feats appropriately.

Front and center there's a cast that delivers. As Skip, the gnarly, drunken surfboard shop owner who starts the Venice Zephyrs team on the path to skateboard greatness, Heath Ledger, out of chain mail and away from romantic lighting, is deep into his character and evidently having lots of fun. In fact it's clear everybody working on the picture had a ball. Emile Hirsch, playing badboy spark to the whole sport Jay Adams, shows again what a gifted actor he is: his pouting, sensuous performance is something to watch. John Robinson, the poster boy for Van Sant's Elephant, is Stacy Peralta, the straight-arrow of the trio of stars who emerge, whose real life counterpart wrote the film script and made the earlier documentary Dogtown and Z Boys. With his gorgeous long straight blond hair, peaches-and-cream cheeks, and Colgate smile, he's a perfect skateboarding valedictorian and a commanding and deft physical presence in what is totally a movie about balls, individualism, and grace. Victor Rasuk, who starred in the lovely little coming of age film Raising Victor Vargas, rises to the very different task here of being the bold, commercial, flashy Mexican American Tony Alva, skateboarding's first world champion. As Jay's sad surf sister burnout mom, Rebecca de Mornay is brave and believable. Ledger and Hirsch walk away with the acting prizes but John Robinson and the other principals are striking presences. These strong, distinctive performances are part of an energetic ensemble piece with many minor unnamed characters seamlessly filling in the background.

In her debut Thirteen, director Catherine Hardwicke showed her ability to eavesdrop realistically on at-risk teenagers and their maturity-challenged parents. Dogtown isn't such a different milieu, but it's also a history of how skateboarding became popular and, for some, worth a lot of money. Hardwicke famously did a literal headbanger in an empty swimming pool while directing the movie and was out for several minutes, scaring skateboarding crew members, who afterward declared, "Now you're one of us."

Lords of Dogtown is a direct companion piece to Peralta's documentary, whose story it brings to vivid life. The decaying Venice pier looms over the early scenes. It's a kind of off limits surfing slum where the boys and their chicks dash to ride waves between pylons and rocks. They jump off a roof, stop traffic, and skateboard down to the ocean in the first high-kinetic shots with long Seventies surfboards in hand. Only Peralta, excluded from the Zephyrs at first for having a job, drives his own car. Their parents are alcoholic burnouts and they come from sleezy little surfside broken homes except for young Sid, a baby-faced poor little rich boy and "maggot," the dedicated dogbody and punching bag at the surfboard shop, with an inner ear problem, a camp follower who turns into the "family's" beloved mascot and martyr.

Once they enter competitions with an earthy new style of skateboarding and athletic gifts that blow away the crowds and turn on the girls, one by one the Zephyr's stars are lured away from the "family" by well funded promoters. Jay rejected that path. One day Jay shaves off his bleach-blond tresses and becomes a punk. Ultimately he went to jail like later skateboard stars Mark Anthony 'Gator' Ragowski, who was documented in Helen Sickler's Rise and Fall of Gator, and the once dashing Christian Hosoi. Jay lures away Stacy's foxy Latina girlfriend in a stunning sequence of coy playfulness and sinuous movements: the dudes' physicality flows out of their derring-do on wheels into their moves with the girls.

There are accidents, beatings, triumphs, and a tragic death. Through it all Heath Ledger as Skip is a buzzing obligato, crazy, stoned, funny but also threatening. Another thread in the film is the raids on rich people's empty pools to skate them in long, flowing, interwoven infinity signs, till little lookouts yell "pig" or "dog" and they all flee, knocking down cops in their path. These bold dangerous runs, worth it for the thrill of the concrete curves and the challenge to explore new shapes, are a badge of the Z Boys' "pirate" outlaw identity and Tony Alva, a closing title declares, continues to raid pools today as an enduring star and amazing lifelong athlete.

I don't know if the actors do a lot of their own skateboarding but if they don't Hardwicke sure makes it look like they do. She also has a way of jumping into sequences already in progress, thus avoiding clumsy exposition, except for a few titles for landmark competitions. The movie escapes the stilted flavor of its genre and gets in a lot of real-sounding dialogue and facial expressions instead. The final sequence is a touching reunion that's both funny and sad. 8/10

┬ęChris Knipp 2005

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