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'Lords of Dogtown': the chairmen of the 'boards, fictionalized

By Richard von Busack

THIS YEAR'S movies have a lot of redundancy built in: sequels that no one wanted to make and no one wanted to see, and adaptations of TV shows that miss the point of their originals. Catherine Hardwicke's Lords of Dogtown establishes a new category of irrelevance, since it fictionalizes the last word on a subject: the evocative documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys.

Lords of Dogtown follows four leading lights of the skateboarding era on the Ocean Park/Venice border in 1975. Soon to be superstars of skateboarding, they are breaking the barriers of what the boards will do. The four include the gentle, long-haired, frequently cock-blocked Stacy Peralta (John Robinson of Gus Van Sant's Elephant) and the more mercurial Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), who grows a swelled head under the world's attention.

Two really egregious performances sink the film. The first is a lockjawed Heath Ledger as Skip Engblom, the hard-drinking owner of the Zephyr Surf Shop; Ledger gives an epileptic fit of a performance, swathing himself in polyester and breaking a lot of glass. (Jeff Ho, whose authentic Southern California calmness was so much a part of the original Dogtown and Z-Boys, wisely sat this feature film out; it's nice to think there's someone out there who doesn't feel like selling their good name.)

Skip is a kind of Fagin who badgers the kids into practicing with the promise of free T-shirts as a reward. To make Skip look more like a rebel, the representatives of rival skateboard companies hiss at the boys like boulevard pimps. Ready for a shock? One of them has a transvestite in their entourage! Maybe surpassing Ledger is a showily haggard Rebecca de Mornay as Philaine, Jay Adams' mother, who works at a lamp factory—all the better that her son, the bad boy of the skate world, Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), can deliver that noble old Hollywoodism, "I'm gonna make some cash and get you out of this place."

Once again, the soundtrack—often anachronistic as hell-—shoulders the load. No mood can be summed up until, just as on The Wonder Years, some oldie but baddy such as Three Dog Night's "Shambala" or "Jackie Blue" by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils has bubbled up. And no 10 minutes go past without some ugly adult coming out and telling the skaters, "Stop! You can't do that!" You could set your watch by it. The question of cultural identity is fuzzed like crazy, with Adams turning into a Black Flag-loving skinhead who runs with chollos. A film this clueless to the cultural nuances of L.A. in the 1970s is, anyway, an example of what a botch the movie industry would have made out of the Love and Rockets adaptation.

The skate stunts, augmented with digital effects, ultimately become cartoony fakery, like Bart Simpson's skateboard feats. In Peralta's last movie, Riding Giants, he complained about how the "Beach Party" movies distorted the 1960s surfing life. How is Lords of Dogtown any different? Dogtown and Z-Boys provided a window to 1975. Lords of Dogtown, with its 2005 attitudes and filmmaking techniques, fogs the truth, making the near-past all the more remote and unknowable for those who didn't live it.

Lords of Dogtown (PG-13; 105 min.), directed by Catherine Hardwicke, written by Stacy Peralta, photographed by Elliot Davis and starring Emile Hirsch, Victor Rasuk and Heath Ledger, plays valleywide.

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Web extra to the June 8-14, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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