Riding Giants

dir. Stacy Peralta

Opens Fri July 16.
This fascinating exploration of the culture of big-wave surfing by the director of the skateboarding documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys is distinguished first by the quality of its footage. I have no idea how Stacy Peralta and his crew managed to get on top of the water the way they do, but the actual surfing in this movie is heroic. Your heart rises and your breath leaves you as the surfers take on waves of 20, 30, 80 feet, waves that could easily kill them, then go back for more, then go back again. It's a cliché to say that surfers live to surf, but after seeing this film, it's a lot easier to understand why.

The main reason for that is the degree to which Peralta treats his movie as a sociological inquiry into a legitimate American subculture. After a brief, animated introduction to the origins of surfing itself, Riding Giants turns its attention to three specific chapters of surfing lore. In the late '50s, when few Americans had even heard of the sport, a handful of WASP kids from SoCal moved to Oahu's North Shore to ride 20- to 30-foot waves. The movie treats them like exponents of the growing bohemianism of late-'50s America, as inspired as the Beats; only instead of going on the road, they went on the beach. Of all the film's subjects, this small group comes off as the most impressive, thanks largely to the fact that they were genuine pioneers, inventing a culture for which there was no precedent, in spite of obvious social resistance. They were also totally insane.

Speaking of insane, the second chapter involves Jeff Clarke, the kid who in the mid-'80s discovered Mavericks, a surf break off Northern California whose waters are ice cold, and whose coastline is massive, jagged boulders. You have to paddle for an hour just to get to the 40- to 50-foot waves. Then, the waves do their best to kill you, as they killed Mark Foo, then the most famous surfer in America.

Which brings us to Laird Hamilton, who is now the most famous surfer in the history of surfing, thanks to his innovative tow-in technique, which, with the aid of a jet ski, allows him (and the 10 other living humans with the nerve to try it) to ride 80-foot waves in the middle of the goddamn ocean. I promise that you have never seen anything like Hamilton's climactic ride in this film. You have also never seen anything like the respect that is afforded the surfers in Riding Giants. Instead of the usual stereotype of dumb, quasi-mystical hunks, Peralta offers his subjects up as athletes and innovators. At times, he fails to obscure their dumb, quasi-mystical tendencies (Clarke calls the ocean his "saltwater church"), but then you see them ride and have no choice but to bow down. SEAN NELSON

The Door in the Floor

dir. Tod Williams

Opens Wed July 14.
There is a kind of quiet, airy, boring horror in the big houses and windy fields of Long Island. It's a fittingly indulgent (if obvious) setting for this indulgent, obvious movie, The Door in the Floor, a punishing family drama about childhood death and marital disintegration. Jeff Bridges plays Ted Cole, a successful children's book author and an unfaithful husband, who takes a teenage boy, Eddie (Jon Foster), as his intern for the summer. Kim Basinger plays Ted's psychologically wrecked wife, Marion. In Eddie, both Marion and Ted see strong resemblances to their fondly remembered, tragically killed sons, which is what makes Marion's eventual seduction of Eddie so richly perverse.

There is emotional potential here, but everything in The Door in the Floor is so slick-surfaced and impassively executed that you can't bear to keep your eyes on the screen. Basinger, our lady of the Botox, is beautiful, unobtrusive, and face-numbingly dull, which wouldn't be such a problem if she weren't supposed to be the sympathetic center of this project. To make matters worse, and as if to overcompensate for her nonpresence, Bridges spends the movie marauding around in bathrobes and ostentatious shirts. Never was there a more unhappy marriage between two characters--or two actors--and when they decide to divorce, minutes into this thing, it seems obvious and fitting, if only because their chemistry is so pitiful. The movie pretends to be fraught with crippling questions about the distorting nature of love and divorce and desire--Basinger's teenage lover says, "I want to know more about you," and she replies, with a grand emptiness, "You know too much already"--but in tone and visual texture the movie is a lot like an extended instant-coffee commercial. Most of the time Kim Basinger is standing somewhere staring fixedly at nothing. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead

dir. Mike Hodges

Opens Fri July 16.
Back in 1971, director Mike Hodges made a splash with the movie Get Carter, which starred Michael Caine as a brutal gangster avenging the death of his brother. Since then, he has worked a lot in television and made the '80s version of Flash Gordon. But with 1998's Croupier he returned to prominence and instigated the cult of Clive Owen. Now he's made I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, a virtual remake of Get Carter.

Davey Graham (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is a low-level drug dealer who has obviously gotten on the nerves of crime boss Boad (Malcolm McDowell). Boad abducts Davey and ass-rapes him, which leads to Davey committing suicide. A dead brother? What's a plot to do? Davey's brother Will (Clive Owen), a brutal but retired gangster, returns to London to exact justice for his brother's untimely death.

The script does not go out of its way to explain the connections between any of the characters, and Hodges directs with a fairly static camera, which makes for a slowly paced, fairly boring, and ultimately unsatisfying picture. The cult of Clive Owen will continue to grow, however; he manages the difficult task of being a magnetic presence onscreen without relying on dialogue or action, especially after he shaves his beard and dons a nice suit. It's no wonder they're talking about him becoming the next James Bond. He's got both style and presence. In fact, all the acting in I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is solid, though McDowell coasts on the gleefully amoral bad-guy shtick. The problem is with the writing, starting with that overly generic title, and with the flat direction. ANDY SPLETZER