Dogtown And Z-Boys<br/>Chop Suey<br/>Novocaine<br/>Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron<br/>The King Is Dancing<br/>

The truth about the Z-Boys By Nicholas Barber
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The Independent Culture

In 1999, there was an article in an American magazine about a gang of school kids who hung out at the Zephyr surf shop in Los Angeles. Their slummy seaside neighbourhood had once been home to acres of amusement parks, but by the early 1970s, the fairgrounds were all gone and the kids had to make their own amusement. In the water, they surfed through a lethal obstacle course of rusting girders where the pier used to be, and, on dry land, they transferred their surfing style to skateboarding. This style was refined one summer when a long drought and a flair for trespassing allowed them to skate up and down the sloping sides of empty backyard swimming pools, a "vertical" technique that has influenced skateboarding acrobatics ever since. The Z-Boys became skating superstars.

In 1999, there was an article in an American magazine about a gang of school kids who hung out at the Zephyr surf shop in Los Angeles. Their slummy seaside neighbourhood had once been home to acres of amusement parks, but by the early 1970s, the fairgrounds were all gone and the kids had to make their own amusement. In the water, they surfed through a lethal obstacle course of rusting girders where the pier used to be, and, on dry land, they transferred their surfing style to skateboarding. This style was refined one summer when a long drought and a flair for trespassing allowed them to skate up and down the sloping sides of empty backyard swimming pools, a "vertical" technique that has influenced skateboarding acrobatics ever since. The Z-Boys became skating superstars.

When the article was printed, Hollywood producers scurried to secure the biopic rights, encouraging Stacy Peralta, one of the Zephyr team, to tell their story first as a documentary. I'm glad he did, because Dogtown And Z-Boys (15) is tremendous. Splicing recent, self-mythologising interviews and wonderful contemporary footage, the film races along with gusto. The soundtrack could be titled "The Best Seventies Rock In The World Ever" and the editing, too, reflects the street spirit of the time. Every now and then, the celluloid will seem to melt, the projector will seem to break down or Sean Penn, the narrator, will stumble over a word, clear his throat and carry on talking.

You can see why Hollywood wanted the story. Dogtown is a genuine rags-to-riches chronicle of outsiders winning against the odds. The footage of the 1975 national skateboarding championships shows the Zephyr team with their long hair and torn jeans – "like a hockey team going to a figure-skating contest", remembers one of them – and both their outfits and their daredevil techniques are so foreign to those of their whitebread competitors that you'd think the scene was fictional. Dogtown is also a cautionary tale: the Z-Boys' hobby led to sponsorship deals for some, to drug addiction for others. If Almost Famous told of how youthful rebellion was commodified by big business in the 1970s, Dogtown tells it better. A fictionalised movie might follow shortly. It won't be anywhere near as good.

Skateboarding and surfing are eulogised in another documentary this week – and so are elephants and dogs, Francis Faye and Robert Mitchum, and statuesque, naked young men. Chop Suey (nc) is an autobiographical, stream-of-consciousness musing from fashion photographer Bruce Weber. It's an enchanting, artistic work for a while, but it does assume you're a Weber fan.

In Novocaine (15), Steve Martin plays a dentist whose life is dully decorous until a femme fatale (Helena Bonham Carter) sashays in for a root canal and sashays out with a box of drugs. David Atkins, the writer/director, appears to have had one eye on American Beauty, the other on David Lynch (Martin's assistant is Laura Dern, the star of Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart). In short, he tries very hard to be weird.

In the best weird films, the characters behave recognisably enough for us to care about them, whereas absolutely nothing in Novocaine rings true. The plotting is risible, Martin can't act, Carter's grungy temptress is more annoying than seductive, and Dern's character belongs in a broad comedy. A visit to the dentist would be more fun.

The posters for the new Dreamworks cartoon state that Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron (U) comes to us "from the producers of Shrek". The smallprint should add, "Not that the two films have anything in common." To list a few differences: Shrek was a state-of-the-art computer animation; Spirit is drawn in the traditional 2D Disney manner. Shrek was a postmodern satire set in a fairyland; Spirit is a liberal paean to the wilderness of the old West. And while Shrek had Eddie Murphy's verbal diarrhoea, Spirit's lead characters – a herd of wild horses – don't talk at all. They whinny. If we want to know what the mustangs are thinking, we have to listen to Matt Damon's voice-over and to Bryan Adams's ballads about how I gotta be me and I gotta be free.

Spirit has some adventure, as our four-legged friend is captured first by cavalrymen and then by Indians. And it has sumptuous animated set pieces involving a raging river and a train crashing down a mountainside. But there are minutes at a time when there's nothing going on except montages of galloping gee-gees, as Adams explains why he gotta be he.

These reverential sequences ensure that while Shrek was enjoyed by all the family, Spirit's target audience is eight-year-old devotees of Canadian soft rock.

The King Is Dancing (15) goes behind the scenes of the court entertainments which Lully and Molière staged for Louis XIV. There is some lavish spectacle, but for story and character I'd wait for the director's cut of Amadeus, due out in a few weeks. If you're in the mood for classical music or horses before that, look out for the Marx Brothers double bill, A Day At The Races (U) and A Night At The Opera (U).

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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