Sundance Film Review: Alpha Dog (dir by Nick Cassavetes)


The Sundance Film Festival is currently taking place in Utah so, for this week, I’m reviewing films that either premiered, won awards at, or otherwise made a splash at Sundance!  Today, I take a look at 2006’s Alpha Dog, which premiered, out of competition, at Sundance.

Sometimes, I suspect that I may be the only person who actually likes this movie.

Alpha Dog is a film about a group of stupid people who end up doing a terrible thing.  Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) is a 20 year-old living in Los Angeles.  His father, Sonny (Bruce Willis) and his godfather, Cosmo (Harry Dean Stanton), are both mob-connected and keep Johnny supplied with the drugs that Johnny then sells to his friends.  It’s a pretty good deal for Johnny.  He’s got a nice house and a group of friends who are willing to literally do anything for him.  Johnny, after all, is the one who has the money.

When Johnny’s former best friend, Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), fails to pay a drug debt, things quickly escalate.  When Johnny refuses to accept even a partial payment, Jake responds by breaking into Johnny’s house and vandalizing the place.  (Just what exactly Jake does, I’m not going to go into because it’s nasty.  Seriously, burn that house down…)  Johnny decides that the best way to force Jake to pay up is to kidnap Jake’s younger brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin, who is heartbreakingly good in this film).

It quickly turns out that Zack doesn’t mind being kidnapped.  Everyone tells Zack not to worry about anything and that he’ll be set free as soon as Jake pays his debt.  Zack decides to just enjoy his weekend.  Since Johnny is better at ordering people to commit crimes than committing them himself, he tells his friend, Frankie (Justin Timberlake), to keep an eye on Zack.

And so it goes from there.  While Johnny leaves town, Frankie introduces Zack to all of his friends.  Everyone laughs about how Zack is “stolen boy.”  Zack’s going to parties and having a good time.  However, Johnny returns and reveals that he’s been doing some thinking, as well as talking to his lawyer.  Regardless of whether Zack’s enjoying himself, both Johnny and Frankie could go to prison for kidnapping him.  Frankie argues that Zack won’t tell anyone about what happened.  Maybe they could just pay him off.  Johnny thinks it might be easier to just have him killed.  Frankie’s not a murderer but what about Elvis Schmidt (Shawn Hatosy)?  Elvis is a loser who desperately wants to be a part of Johnny’s crew and he owes Johnny almost as much money as Jake does.  How far would Elvis be willing to go?

(While this plays out, the film keeps a running tally of everyone who witnesses Zack not only being kidnapped but also held hostage.  In the end, there were at least 32 witnesses but none of them said a word.)

Alpha Dog is based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood and the murder of 15 year-old Nicholas Markowitz.  Hollywood spent five years as a fugitive from justice, hiding out in Brazil and reportedly being protected by his wealthy family.  He was arrested shortly before the Sundance premiere of Alpha Dog.  Since it was filmed before Hollywood’s arrest and subsequent conviction, Alpha Dog changed his name to Johnny Truelove.  Johnny Truelove is a good name but it’s nowhere near as memorable as Jesse James Hollywood.

Alpha Dog sticks close to the facts of the case, providing a disturbing portrait of a group of aimless wannabe gangsters who, insulated by money and privilege, ended up getting in over their heads and committing a terrible crime.  Emile Hirsch gives one of his best performances as the sociopathic Johnny Truelove while Ben Foster is both frightening and, at times, sympathetic as Jake.  Justin Timberlake is compelling as he wrestles with his conscience while Shawn Hatosy is properly loathsome as the type of idiot that everyone knows but wish they didn’t.  The dearly missed Anton Yelchin is heartbreaking and poignant as Zack.  And finally, there’s Harry Dean Stanton.  Stanton doesn’t say a lot in this movie.  Often times, he’s just hovering in the background.  The moment when he reveals his true self is one of the best in the movie.

As I said, I sometimes feel as if I’m the only person who likes this movie.  It got mixed reviews when it was released and, in the years since, it rarely seems to ever get mentioned in a positive context.  Personally, I think it’s a well-done portrait of privilege, stupidity, and the lengths to which people will go to avoid taking a stand.  In the end, no one escapes punishment but it’s the rich guy who, at the very least, gets to spend at least a few years enjoying his freedom in Brazil.

Previous Sundance Film Reviews:

  1. Blood Simple
  2. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
  3. Circle of Power
  4. Old Enough
  5. Blue Caprice
  6. The Big Sick

Never Nominated: 16 Actors Who Have Never Been Nominated For An Oscar


Along with being one of the greatest actors who ever lived, the late Peter O’Toole had another, far more dubious achievement.  He holds the record for being nominated the most times for Best Actor without actually winning.  Over the course of his long career, Peter O’Toole was nominated 8 times without winning.

But, at least O’Toole was nominated!

Below are 16 excellent actors who have NEVER been nominated for an Oscar.  10 of these actors still have a chance to get that first nomination.  For the rest, the opportunity has sadly past.

Quicksilver-photo_625px_8col

  1. Kevin Bacon

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t like Kevin Bacon?  Amazingly, despite several decades of good performances in good films, Kevin Bacon has yet to be nominated.  That said, he seems destined to be nominated some day.  If nothing else, he deserved some sort of award for being the most successful cast member of the original Friday the 13th.  (As well, 40 years after the fact, his cry of “All is well!” from Animal House has become one of the most popular memes around.)

2. Brendan Gleeson

This brilliant Irish actor deserved a nomination (and probably the win) for his brave performance in Calvary.  But, even if you ignore Calvary, his filmography is full of award-worthy performances.  From The General to Gangs of New York to 28 Days Later to In Bruges to The Guard, Gleeson is overdue for some recognition.

3. John Goodman

John Goodman deserved to be nominated this year, for his performance in 10 Cloverfield Lane.  He brought warmth to both Argo and Inside Llewyn Davis.  And he was absolutely terrifying in Barton Fink.  John Goodman is one of the most underrated actors working today.

4. Malcolm McDowell

It’s obviously been a while since Malcolm McDowell had a truly great role.  But who could forget his amazing performance in A Clockwork Orange?  For that matter, I liked his sweetly gentle performance in Time After Time.  Someone give this man the great role that he deserves!

5. Ewan McGregor

Ewan McGregor is an actor who is oddly taken for granted.  His performance in Trainspotting remains his best known work.  But, really, he’s been consistently giving wonderful performances for twenty years now.  Sometimes — as in the case of the Star Wars prequels — the films have not been worthy of his talent but McGregor has always been an engaging and compelling screen presence.  When it comes to playing someone who is falling in love, few actors are as convincing as Ewan McGregor.

6) Franco Nero

Franco!  If for nothing else, he deserved a nomination for playing not only Lancelot in Camelot and not only the original Django but also for playing Intergalactic Space Jesus in The Visitor.  I also loved his work in a little-known Italian thriller called Hitchhike.  Nero is still active — look for him in John Wick 2 — and hopefully, he’ll get at least one more truly great role in his lifetime.

7) Sam Rockwell

Let’s just get this out of the way.  In a perfect world, Sam Rockwell would already have an Oscar.  He would have won for his performance in 2009’s Moon.  He also would have received nominations for The Way, Way Back and Seven Psychopaths.  Sadly, Sam’s still waiting for his first nomination.  Again, the problem may be that he’s such a natural that he just makes it look easy.

Andy Serkis

8) Andy Serkis

Andy Serkis has never been nominated, despite giving some of the best performances of this century.  He should have been nominated for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  He should have won for Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

9) Harry Dean Stanton

Harry Dean Stanton has been around forever and he’ll probably outlive everyone else on the planet.  He often seems to be indestructible.  Harry Dean is the epitome of a great character actor.  He’s a modern-day John Carradine.  And, just as John Carradine was never nominated, Harry Dean seems to destined to suffer the same fate.  Oscar may have forgotten him but film lovers never will.

10) Donald Sutherland

It’s hard to believe that Donald Sutherland has never been nominated for an Oscar but it’s true.  He probably should have been nominated for his work in Ordinary People and JFK.  Even his work in The Hunger Games franchise was an absolute delight to watch.  I imagine that Sutherland will be nominated someday.

Donald Sutherland and Kristen Stewart

Finally, here are 6 actors who sadly were never honored by the Academy and who are no longer with us:

  1. John Carradine

I mentioned John Carradine earlier.  Carradine was a favorite of many directors and he brought his considerable (and rather eccentric) talents to a countless number of films.  Among his best performances: Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

2. John Cazale

Before his untimely death, John Cazale acted in 5 films: The Godfather, Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter.  All five of them were nominated for best picture.  12 years after his death, archival footage of him was used in The Godfather Part III.  It was also nominated for Best Picture.  Not only is Cazale alone in having spent his entire career in films nominated for best picture but, in each film, Cazale gave a performance that, arguably, deserved to be considered for a Best Supporting Actor nomination.  Cazale was an amazing actor and it’s a shame that he wasn’t able to give us more great performances.

3. Oliver Reed

Oliver Reed was a legendary drinker but he was also an amazingly entertaining actor.  I’m not a huge fan of Gladiator but his final performance was more than worthy of a posthumous nomination.

Alan Rickman

4. Alan Rickman

When it comes to the late Alan Rickman, it’s not a question of whether he should have been nominated.  It’s a question of for which film.  I know a lot of people would say Rickman deserved a nomination for redefining cinematic villainy in Die Hard.  Personally, I loved his performance in Sense and Sensibility.  And, of course, you can’t overlook any of the times that he played Snape.

5. Edward G. Robinson

Edward G. Robinson was never nominated for an Oscar!?  Not even for Double Indemnity?  Or his final performance in Soylent Green?  Horrors!

6) Anton Yelchin

It’s debatable whether or not Anton Yelchin ever got a chance to give a truly award-worthy performance during his lifetime.  I would argue that his work in both Green Room and Like Crazy were pretty close.  But, if Yelchnin had lived, I’m confident he would have eventually been nominated.  We lost a wonderful talent when we lost him.

like-crazy-still02

 

The Austin Film Critics Association Honors Moonlight!


moonlight-620x360

The Austin Film Critics Association have announced their picks for the best of 2016!

Best Film: Moonlight (dir: Barry Jenkins)

Best Director: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Best Actor: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Best Actress: Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis, Fences

Best Original Screenplay: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Best Adapted Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, Arrival

Best Cinematography: Linus Sandgren, La La Land

Best Score: Justin Hurwitz, La La Land

Best Foreign-Language Film: The Handmaiden (dir: Park Chan-wook)

Best Documentary: Tower (dir: Keith Maitland)

Best Animated Film: Kubo and the Two Strings (dir: Travis Knight)

Best First Film: The Witch (dir: Robert Eggers)

The Robert R. “Bobby” McCurdy Memorial Breakthrough Artist Award: Keith Maitland, Tower

Austin Film Award: Tower (dir: Keith Maitland)

Special Honorary Award: To the ensemble cast of Moonlight and casting director Yesi Ramirez for excellence as an ensemble.

Special Honorary Award: To honor Anton Yelchin for his contribution to the cinema of 2016, including performances in Green Room and Star Trek Beyond. His was a brilliant career cut profoundly short.

Special Honorary Award: To A24 Films for excellence in production in distribution. Their work gave us Moonlight, Green Room, Swiss Army Man, The Lobster, The Witch, and 20th Century Women, among others.

Special Honorary Award: To filmmaker Keith Maitland and his film Tower for revisiting a tragic event in Austin, Texas history in a sensitive and unique manner.

AFCA 2016 Top Ten Films:

  1. Moonlight
  2. La La Land
  3. Arrival
  4. The Handmaiden
  5. Manchester by the Sea
  6. Elle
  7. Hell or High Water
  8. The Lobster
  9. Jackie
  10. Sing Street

The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: Green Room (dir by Jeremy Saulnier)


greenroom5

Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is one of the best films of the year but I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to bring myself to watch it a second time.

Why?

There’s two reasons:

Number one, Green Room is one of the most intense films that I’ve ever seen.  Much like Saulnier’s previous film, Blue Ruin, this is a violent movie that never makes violence look fun.  The violence here is all too real and the pain that the characters feel is all too real as well.  I watched a good deal of Green Room through my fingers, hiding my face behind my hands.  Seriously, I’ve seen some pretty gory movies.  (I’m an unapologetic fan of Italian horror, after all.)  But Green Room still left me shaken.  Occasionally, it even left me gasping for breath.  It’s just that intense.  It’s a film about four people battling for survival and I’m surprised (and a little proud) that I survived all the way to the end.

The other reason is that the film stars Anton Yelchin.  It was one of the final films that he made before his death and he gives such a likable and committed performance that it’s impossible for me to think about the film without getting a little emotional.  Far more than his supporting work in the Star Trek films, Green Room showcased what a good actor Anton Yelchin truly was.  It’s impossible for me to think about Green Room without mourning a talent taken from us far too soon.  And though it might be difficult to watch the film a second time, everyone should watch Green Room at least once.  If you ever wonder why some of us still get emotional when we talk about Anton Yelchin, it’s all there in the movie.

In Green Room, Yelchin plays Pat.  Pat is the bass player for a punk band called the Ain’t Rights.  The Ain’t Rights have been touring the northern part of the country.  It’s a low-budget tour, one that perfectly reflects that anti-corporate politics of the Ain’t Rights.  For them, the tour means crashing with friends, siphoning gasoline, and doing interviews with underground radio stations.  In fact, one interviewer — the rather dorky Tad (David W. Thompson) — arranges for them to do a show at an isolated bar in Oregon.  Tad tells them that the bar attracts a rough crowd but that they’ll be okay because his cousin Daniel (Blue Ruin‘s Macon Blair) works there.

The Ain’t Rights arrive and discover that the club appears to have a clientele that is exclusively made up of Neo-Nazi skinheads.  After some hesitation, the Ain’t Rights take the stage and, for a few brief moments, Saulnier shows them performing in slow motion and those of us in the film’s audience — even someone like me, who would probably otherwise never listen to a band like the Ain’t Rights — are briefly caught up in the joy and excitement of their performance.

Unfortunately, while the band is performing, the Nazis are busy murdering a woman in the green room.  And, after the band walks in on the aftermath of the murder, they soon find themselves marked for death as well.  The band is smart enough to lock themselves in the green room and to take one of the Nazis as a hostage.  However, they know that they can’t stay in that room forever.  At some point, they’re going to have to figure out how to escape from the bar…

Green Room is a harrowing and violent film, one that maintains an almost feverish intensity from start to end.  Making it all the more difficult to watch is that Saulnier keeps the horror rooted in reality.  The Neo-Nazis never turn into cardboard movie slashers.  Instead, they are a very real and disturbing threat.  (It’s interesting to note that occasionally, a Neo-Nazis will express some doubt about killing the band but none of them have the courage to actually refuse any of the orders that they receive.  We often hear that people need to respect authority.  Well, Green Room shows what happens when people blindly respect authority to the extent that they can no longer think for themselves.)  Though the film may be violent, it never celebrates that violence and when one character does get a chunk of arm chopped off, it’s literally one of the most painful images to ever be captured on film.  You like every member of the band so, when they get hurt, you feel their pain as well.  Though Yelchin may be the main character, the other members of the Ain’t Rights — played by Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner — all make a good impression as well.  You want them all to escape and dread the realization that not all of them will.

As for the owner of the club, his name is Darcy and he’s played by Patrick Stewart.  At first, it may sound like stunt casting.  Patrick Stewart as a Neo-Nazi?  But interestingly enough, Darcy doesn’t really seem to care about ideology.  Instead, you get the feeling that he realized that there was money to be made by catering to racists so that’s what he decided to do.  When he barks out orders and demands that the members of the band be killed, his main motivation seems to be pure greed.  If the band escapes and reports the murder, he’ll lose his club.  Stewart gives a chilling performance.  When he first appears, you do think, “Hey, it’s Patrick Stewart!”  But, within minutes, you forget who is playing him.  He becomes Darcy and you’re scared to death of him and his followers.

Green Room is an incredibly intense and scary film.  It also features perhaps the best performance of Anton Yelchin’s career.  Green Room stands as a testament to a talent taken too early.

(On a purely personal note: I’m glad that Green Room took place in Oregon.  Too often, movies tend to portray racism as being an exclusively Southern issue, one that somehow magically disappears once you head up north.  It often feels as if people spend so much time talking about racism in other states that they fail to actually look at what’s happening in their own backyard.  It’s easier to laugh at a state like Alabama than to ask why someone like Eric Garner died on the streets of New York City.  Racism is an American issue, and that includes the states both below and above the Mason-Dixon line.)

patrick-stewart

RIP, Anton Yelchin


like-crazy-still02

Hi, everyone.  You’re going to have to excuse me if I’m not as articulate as usual in this post but right now, I am in a state of shock.  A few minutes ago, I took a look at twitter and I saw that Anton Yelchin was trending.

I joked to myself for a minute about how, whenever a celebrity is trending on twitter, it usually turns out to be something bad.  I clicked Anton’s name and the first tweet that came up read: ‘Star Trek’ actor Anton Yelchin dies in car crash at age 27.’

I’m still trying to catch my breath.

Just last month, I saw The Green Room and I spent the whole movie thinking about what a truly great actor Anton Yelchin had become.  I know that almost everyone knows Anton primarily for playing Chekov in the Star Trek films but my favorite Anton Yelchin performance remains his sensitive and often heart-breaking work in Like Crazy.  That’s also my favorite of the films in which he appeared.

I’m sorry.  I’m so stunned right now that I barely know what to say.  Right now, I’m struggling to get my mind around the end of both a life and a career that held so much promise.  27 years old is too young for anyone to die, regardless of whether he’s an actor you like or just the neighbor two houses down.

Here are links to a few of the Anton Yelchin films that we have reviewed here on TSL.  Some of the films are better than others but all were improved by Yelchin’s presence:

  1. Only Lovers Left Alive
  2. Like Crazy
  3. Fright Night
  4. The Beaver
  5. Terminator: Salvation
  6. Star Trek
  7. Star Trek: Into Darkness

Though I haven’t written reviews of either of them (yet), I would also recommend Yelchin’s work in both The Green Room and Alpha Dog.  In particular, his poignant performance in Alpha Dog was underrated.

My heart goes out to Anton Yelchin’s friends, family, and fans.

I’m going to watch Like Crazy later and cry.

tumblr_lp9iaejK121qjaa1to1_1280

Star Trek Beyond Looks Much Faster and More Furious


Star Trek Beyond

J.J. Abrams reinvigorated the Star Trek film franchise when he did a sort of sort-reboot in 2009. It brought the franchise into the consciousness of a younger demographic who didn’t grow up as fans of the franchise both in film and the many tv series. The film was a success and Paramount made sure to strike while it was still hot and greenlit a sequel that looked to build on the strong foundation set-up by J.J. Abrams.

2013 saw that sequel come out and to say that it underwhelmed and burned much of the goodwill created with the 2009 film would be an understatement. Star Trek Into Darkness (a title derided the moment it was announced) literally took the “darkness” part of the title and ramped it up to 11. There wasn’t any of the fun and adventurous nature of the first film. It didn’t help that screenwriter’s Robert Orci’s 9/11 Truther ideology seeped into the film’s plot.

When it was announced that Robert Orci would end up directing the third film after J.J. Abrams went to go direct the latest Star Wars film, the outcry was loud and clear. Orci was a bad choice and just keeping him on would just sink a film franchise already teetering on the brink of becoming irrelevant in a blockbuster environment where superhero universes and the original blockbuster universe reigned supreme.

So, it was with some relief and cautious optimism when Paramount dumped Orci and went with Justin Lin (hot off the massive success of Fast & Furious 6) and rewrites by Simon Pegg. The franchise was going to get the fun back into the series and everyone was invited. Even the chosen title, Star Trek Beyond, spoke to a creative team who saw a chance to bring back the franchise from just being part of a fandom but for those who wouldn’t know a dilithium crystal from a Sith Lord.

The first teaser shows the fun part of what Justin Lin and Simon Pegg have been talking about. Now, will the next trailer show a much more dramatic side to the events fans are hoping will balance all the fun.

Star Trek Beyond looks to land on July 22, 2016.

Embracing the Melodrama #56: Fierce People (dir by Griffin Dunne)


Fierce People

Much as how Inside Out is a perfect example of how one bad plot twist can ruin an otherwise good film, the 2007 sin-among-the-wealthy melodrama Fierce People shows how one good actor can partially redeem a really bad movie.  That actor’s name is Donald Sutherland and Fierce People is worth seeing for one reason: his performance.

Fierce People tells the story of a teenager named Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin).  As a character, Finn Earl is almost as annoying as his cutesy name.  He’s a permanently sarcastic 16 year-old who goes through life with the same judgmental smirk on his face, while the whole time delivering some of the smuggest narration ever recorded for a voice over in an American film.  Finn’s mother is Liz (Diane Lane), a massage therapist with a drug problem.  Finn’s father is some jerk who spends all of his time in South America, studying cannibal tribes.  (Actually, he’s studying a real-life Indian tribe known as the Yanomami, or the Fierce People.  However, I prefer to assume that he was actually studying a cannibal tribe because that means it’s entirely possible that he was eaten at some point and therefore, Finn will never get a chance to spend any time with father.  That’s the type of reaction that Finn, as a character, inspires.)

Liz and Finn are invited to spend the summer living the guesthouse of the fabulously wealthy Ogden Osburne (Donald Sutherland).  At first, Finn is weary of Ogden and assumes that he must be sleeping with Liz.  However, in a scene that works only because of the performance of Donald Sutherland, Ogden very graphically shows Finn why he’s not interested in having an affair with Liz.  Instead, Ogden is just a nice, rich eccentric.  Unfortunately, the other wealthy people who live around Ogden are not quite as nice and they soon, they start to resent the presence of Finn and his mother.  Finn does manages to befriend Ogden’s decadent grandson (played by Chris Evans) and even starts a tentative romance with Ogden’s granddaughter (Kristen Stewart) but the rest of the Osburne clan is not prepared to be so accepting.  Soon, the film goes from being an annoying comedy to being an annoying drama with a burst of violence and murder.

Fierce People is not a very good movie.  It’s based on a novel and, even if you didn’t know that beforehand, you would guess just from the way that the film tries and fails to present a lot of themes that undoubtedly work better on the page than on the screen.  The film’s attempts to draw parallels between the Yanomami and the wealthy (They’re two tribes and they’re both fierce — OH MY GOD, MIND BLOWN!) are way too obvious and the film’s sudden lurch into drama is handled rather clumsily.  It’s interesting to see Chris Evans before he became Capt. America and Kristen Stewart before she became Bella (and both of them, by the way, give good performances) but Anton Yelchin’s performance as Finn alternates between being smug and being whiny.  (In Yelchin’s defense, he’s developed into a pretty good actor and I loved him in Like Crazy.)

And yet, Fierce People works as an example of what a truly great actor can do with so-so material.  As played by Donald Sutherland, Ogden becomes the jaded moral center of the universe.  Sutherland plays Ogden with a perversely regal air and yet also makes us totally believe that Ogden actually could be helping the Earls out of the kindness of his heart.  It’s a great performance and every minute that Sutherland is on screen, Fierce People works.

If the film had simply been called Fierce Ogden, it would have been a hundred times better.

Donald Sutherland and Kristen Stewart