Saturday, April 26, 2014

Alpha Dog

This is some kind of pop art review I wrote of ALPHA DOG quite a while back.  Judging by the form and style, it must have been a kind of next day review while the film was still relatively new in release. It looks to be mainly a mainstream, daily newspaper type of review. I certainly wouldn’t write about any film in this style today.

Here's a movie about spoiled, rich Southern California white kids whose lives mainly consist of drug abuse, meaningless sex, and posturing violence. Are you still awake? Actually, the fact that the plot, the characters, and the setting have all been done umpteen times before shouldn't be an automatic disqualification by any means as long as some of the other elements of filmmaking are strong enough to make up for the shortfall. Here's the problem though, and it's a pretty insurmountable one - everyone's a bad guy. Dramatic tension only comes across when we have really strong feelings for the good guys and equally strong ones for the bad guys. You know, protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). Here all we have is one dirtbag versus another. With a couple of small exceptions every character in the film is either despicable or stupid.
Johnny Truelove (Emil Hirsch) is a marijuana dealer with a stable of low life thugs and followers including the doomed Elvis (Shawn Hatosy), Frankie (Justin Timberlake), and TKO (Fernando Vargas). Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), an out of control drug addict, can't come up with the money he owes Truelove. When he tries to talk to Truelove about some more time and a pay plan, Truelove attacks him - huge mistake. Jake's a black belt in the martial arts, and after he pulverizes Truelove in the fight he proceeds to humiliate him in front of everybody by calling him too chicken to use the gun Truelove pulls on him, which turns out to be true.
Meanwhile Jake's younger brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) has a fight with his parents when they find a reefer bong in his bedroom; after he runs out of the house we see him wandering through a park. Guess who just happens to be cruising by in their van? Right, Truelove and his cronies. Seeing the opportunity, they grab the kid and plan to hold him for ransom for the money Jake owes. We're supposed to believe that they're so stupid, ignorant, and young that they don't realize kidnapping is considered to be one of the most serious of crimes - they treat the whole thing like a kid's game. And this is one of the main points the the picture is trying to make, though you have to look really hard to see it - these are all just wannabe adults, children pretending to be grownups. The film goes to some length to indict the parents, particularly Truelove's father (Bruce Willis) and Mazursky's mother (Sharon Stone, in a good performance that's almost wasted by the way her character is changed in the last scene in which she appears) - both of whom are seen in journalistic footage that is supposedly taken way after the main events of the film transpire. 
Frankie's father is a pothead who invites his son to join a menage consisting of himself and two girls half his age.
The film is loaded with tattoos, drugs, rap music, gorgeous SoCal mansions with swimming pools, etc. The only two characters with any straight and narrow sense of right and wrong are Frankie's girlfriend, Susan (Dominique Swain - who by the way has the best biceps in the picture in spite of all the males who aspire to that title!) and the burnout druggie Keith (Chris Marquette), who refuses to be complicit in the story's appalling conclusion. Chuck Pacheco as Chucky Mota is good too in a brief role that seems to capture the entire essence of Southern California in about six speaking lines.
Alpha Dog requires patience and a willingness to grant the benefit of the doubt. There are a lot of loose ends (for example after a while Jake, who dominates the story up to a certain point, simply disappears - he simply falls off the screen and is never seen again); director Nick Cassavetes tries to be artsy at times (the image of an evil laughing clown is snuck in under the radar in back to back scenes), to his credit. If you have an open mind you may like this film, but it's going to take some work.

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