Friday, April 20, 2007

ALPHA DOG - Guns don't kill people, rappers do

You wanna' know what this is all about? You can say this about drugs or guns or bad decisions, what ever you like. But this whole thing is about parenting. And taking care of your children.You're a fifteen-year old boy living in middle-class luxury with a stifling mother. Your elder step-brother is neo-Nazi Jewish drug-addict with martial arts moves that would make Tarantino proud. He owes some local cocky wannabe-gangsta $1200, so the gangsta kidnaps you in a moment of spontaneous madness. But these gangstas are just middle-class kids with too much money and not enough parental control. So they take you to some cool parties, get you high on dope and get you laid. In short, you're having the time of your life! Problem is, while the stooge actually guarding you is a decent guy, these boys are already looking at life. They're too dumb to see another way out and, to quote a brilliant line from SHOOTER, their moral compass is so off whack they probably couldn't find their way to the parking lot. So they decide it's better to be hung for a sheep tham a lamb.....

Apparently all this really happened not so long ago in California. You have to cling on to that fact - indeed, writer-director Nick Cassavetes makes you cling on to this fact with documentary style talking-head interviews, captions and split-screens. Because without this belief, the whole yarn would look so ridiculous as to be incredible. The characters are so plain stupid, so intentionally and uninentionally funny, that the movie feels like a live-action version of whacky races.

The difficuly for Cassavetes is managing the tone. When he's capturing the absurdity of rich white kids playing gangsta he's very good - thanks to a good script and brilliant performances by Emile Hirsch (who looks like a young Jack Black in his goofier moments) as the gang-leader, Justin Timberlake as his love-able side-kick and Ben Foster as the kidnapee's elder brother. Foster's creation is a work of comic genius - channelling both Spud and Begbie fom TRAINSPOTTING. Cassavetes also manages to film some really affecting drama - not least when Timberlake's softy has to deliver the kidnapee to his fate.

But the shift in tone is not well handled. Neither is the social critique, which is bluntly stated but not explored. Essentially, Cassavetes seems to say that the whole fiasco can be blamed on 1) too many MTV videos and 2) parents who are so self-absorbed that they are barely parents at all. To quote the tatoo on Ben Foster's character's chest: let not the sin of his mother be blotted out. The film also contains one gigantic error of judgment, and that is to put Sharon Stone in a cheap fat-suit for her final monologue to camera. The viewer is distracted from her strong performance as a grieving mother by the cheap and unnecessary make-up effect.

ALPHA DOG played Sundance 2006. It was released in the US, Israel, Russia, Iceland, Italy, Panama, Turkey, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Austria, France, Portugal, Spain, Latvia and Denmark earlier this week. It opens in Finland and the UK today and in Belgium next week. Itopens in Hungaru on May 3rd an in the Netherlands on July 5th. Finally it opens in Argentina in November 2007. ALPHA DOG is released on Region 1 DVD in May.

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