Thursday, February 3, 2011

Review: Alpha Dog

If you recall when I reviewed The Social Network I was surprised to see that Justin Timberlake was kind of awesome in it.  I realized then that my long standing avoidance of him films, mainly due to the fact that I doubted that a musician could or should be making the jump to film, may have been unwarranted.  Enter: Alpha Dog a film that looked kind of interesting from the trailers but I avoided it for the sole purpose of not wanting any of my money to possibly fall into Timberlake’s hands.  With my animosity towards the singer mostly subsided I decided to give the film a shot.  To my horror I realized that the movie also featured Ben Foster.  No, not “horror” because I don’t like him but horror because I missed out on another film featuring a guy who I think may be one of the best actors in Hollywood.  That sucks but more on Mr. Foster in a second.
Released in 2006 Alpha Dog is based on the true story of the murder of Nicholas Markowitz.  In fact the biggest change between the real story and the film version that I can figure out is the various name changes.  Apparently the district attorney actually provided documents and acted as a consultant, supposedly because he hoped that it might aide in the capture of the fugitive Jesse James Hollywood, whom the villain Johnny Truelove was based on (Hollywood is now a serving life sentence in prison, so Justice prevailed in the end thankfully).   Potentially this may be one of the most accurate “Based on a True Story” films Hollywood has ever made.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers, though as this is based on a true story you probably should already know the ending.
In the year 1999 Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) is a young drug dealer with delusions of gangtsa grandeur, spending his days selling dope, hanging out with sycophants good friends and loose women, talking a like a black guy, and living the good life.  However he is in a rather dangerous situation with Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a drug addled skinhead who owes Johnny some serious money.  Things soon get intense and violent between the two and a feud soon erupts.  While searching for Jake to settle the score (With a beating) Trueloev and his buddies come across his younger brother Zack Mazursky (Anton Yelchin) who they decide to kidnap to get to Jake.  Things soon go downhill from there.
Why do the worst people have the best names?
The movie doesn’t make it clear who the main character is.  It’s either Johnny Truelove, who would be an irredeemable Villain Protagonist (As opposed to an antihero) or the victim Zack Mazursky who, once he’s kidnapped, we mainly focus on.  I suppose either would work.  Normally I would prefer more clear lead character in a film, but in this case it works for the format.  Speaking of the format this feels less like a movie and more like an extremely stylized documentary with actors.  It’s pretty much a two hour dramatization of the events.  There are interviews with characters in what I assume must be present day (2006) looking back on what happened.  This all helps give the film a unique tone.  It’s hard not to know how this movie ends even if you’ve never heard of the real story, but it’s still pretty easy to get sucked into the film and think everything’s going to be alright.  It’s an entertaining movie for the most part.
The cast and character as a whole are not that interesting, though there are a few standouts.  Justin Timberlake, playing Johnny’s friend Frankie is easily one of the more likable characters in a story where almost no one is supposed to be likable.  It’s not a game changing role for him or anything like that, but it does imply that he has a lot a potential as an actor.  Had I seen this movie when it came out I would have been forced to admit that Timberlake had talent.  It’s like here its saying that he could be great in a movie, just not this movie.  He would later prove this to be true in The Social Network.  Next Ben Foster who is one of two actors I think is the future of Hollywood (The other being Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  Or at least I hope he is the future of Hollywood.  He is a really, really talented at playing intense and probably unbalanced characters.  As Jake he plays it so goddamn chillingly in it that I seriously wondered if the character was going to crawl out of the screen, choke me to death, then take my soul.  Jake is a prick who is no better than anyone else (And being a Neo-Nazi he’s obviously a monster) but damn if he didn’t beat the living hell out of something like seven dudes in one scence.  I love Foster and have been a fan of his since 3:10 to Yuma where he went all Psycho Cowboy on everyone he came across in that flick.  It’s a damn shame that I didn’t catch him here when it originally came out.
Ben Foster: Too Good to Have Been in X-Men 3
Anton “Don’t Call Me New Chekov” Yelchin does a good job with making Zack a sweetheart that you really feel for, but that may also be due to the fact that Yelchin may be really good at that kind of role: vulnerable, yet good hearted kid.  And hey, Amanda Seyfried is also in this movie, something I must have also not noticed back then because I tend to try to catch her films.  One time she starred in a movie with Megan Fox and then Hollywood tried to tell me that in some crazy backwards universe Fox is somehow more attractive than her (Note: I chose not to catch that film).  Hollywood why do you tell me such ugly and blatant lies?  Like all men of my sexual persuasion I am a lousy sexist dirtbag, which means it’s time to update my “Hottest Women in Hollywood List”.
#6: Amanda Seyfried
#5: Natalie Portman
#4: Amy Acker
#3: Kat Dennings
#2: Anne Hathaway
#1: Michelle Trachtenberg
More Attractive & More Talented Than Megan Fox
I should probably change the name of this list to “List of Women Who Will Never Date Me”, but then it would probably get way too long.  Getting back on topic Seyfried plays Julie a truly unimportant and unremarkable character that doesn’t really have any bearing on the plot as a whole, other than being one of 19,992 witnesses to the crime.  Seyfried is a pretty solid actor but I’m still waiting to be thoroughly impressed by her.  Also in the film are Bruce Willis as Johnny’s father Sonny and Sharon Stone as Zack’s mother Olivia who probably both worked for scale.  Now I suspect that the only reason these two were cast was to gain some star power for this flick but regardless of the “why” neither of these two provide the film with anything at all and really the roles could have been played by more talented “non-name” actors and the difference would be negligible.  Actually in Stone’s case it may have been an improvement as her big scene as the tortured mother of the long dead Zack is made almost laughable by how much she over acts it.  When I look back at this film I suspect I’ll instantly think “Oh yeah, Sharon Stone in a fat suit” over anything else.
Speaking of stuff that wasn’t needed there are a lot of scenes in this movie that serve no real purpose.  Seeing as the film is nearly two hours I assume it wasn’t to pad things put but it does in fact feel that way.  For example the scene I mentioned where Ben Foster beats up a bunch of people at once, while great for a Foster fan like me, doesn’t affect anything at all.  It just sort of happens and then isn’t spoken of again.   There are several instances like that that may or may not be character development scenes (Mostly they weren’t) but certainly don’t move the plot forward.  I’m also unsure what the message was in this film.  In the making-of bonus feature all the actors kept repeating how important it was for people to see this movie because of what it has to say but after watching it I’m not sure what it’s trying to tell me.  Don’t deal drugs?  I don’t know, Johnny’s life was pretty sweet and the trouble only starts because he got violent with someone who owed him money.  Be careful who you hang out with?  Well maybe; Zack certainly ends up with the wrong crowd, though in his defense with one or two obvious examples he was pretty much kidnapped the whole without a whole lot of opportunity to escape.  Plus if Amanda Seyfried was involved I wouldn’t have left either.  Keep an eye on your kids?  That’s the first step to totalitarian parenting that creates socially awkward weirdoes so I won’t ponder that one.  The best moral of the story I can think of is “Don’t be an impulsive asshole”, since all of this would have been avoided if Johnny Truelove had said to himself “After I hypothetically kidnap this guy’s brother what’s my next move?  Prison?  Better leave him alone then.”  I have no idea if that was what I was supposed to take away from it or not.
The real lesson: If Justin Timberlake says "it will be alright"
Assume you're about to be shot
Overall this isn’t a bad movie but it isn’t anything to write home about.  Most of the cast is average, there are far too many scenes that go nowhere, and it possesses of number of white kids spewing black slang that far exceed my comfort level but it’s not a terrible movie.  It got some pretty negative reviews but I suspect that may be because as a story it’s not very accessible.  Instead try to think of it as a dramatic retelling of events; I find it much easier to enjoy that way.  It did its job as entertainment and has no major faults.  Give it look if you have the chance to decide for yourself.
I give Alpha Dog 3 out 5 Adorable Pandas.
-Possesses a unique storytelling structure
-Some key actors offer solid performances
-Ben Foster gets angry and screams a lot
-The rest of the cast are average at best
-Many pointless scenes
-Has a sense of over importance, maybe
-Sharon Stone in a Fat Suit

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