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

A Movie A Day #232: Tyson (1995, directed by Uli Edel)


If any heavyweight champion from the post-Ali era of boxing has lived a life that seems like it should be ready-made for the biopic treatment, it is “Iron Mike” Tyson.  In 1995, HBO stepped up to provide just such a film.

In an episodic fashion, Tyson tells the story of Mike Tyson’s rise and fall.  At the start of the movie, Tyson is a child trying to survive on the tough streets of Brooklyn.  The events that unfold should be familiar to any fight fan: Mike (played by Spawn himself, Michael Jai White) gets sent to reform school. Mike is taken under the wing of the legendary trainer, Cus D’Amato (George C. Scott). Mike becomes the youngest heavyweight champion, marries and divorces Robin Givens (Kristen Wilson), and eventually falls under the corrupting influence of the flamboyant Don King (Paul Winfield).  After failing to train properly for what should have been a routine fight, Tyson loses his title and subsequently, he is convicted of rape and sent to prison.

Tyson aired shortly after the real Mike was released from prison and announced his return to boxing.  Unfortunately, much of what Mike Tyson is best known for occurred after he was released from prison.  As a result, don’t watch Tyson to see Mike bite off Evander Holyfield’s ear.  Don’t watch it expecting to see Mike get his famous facial tattoo.  All of that happened after Tyson aired.  Instead, Tyson tells the story of the first half of Mike’s life in conventional biopic style.  There is even a montage of newspaper headlines.

The best thing about Tyson is the cast.  Even though the film does not delve too deeply into any aspect of Tyson’s life, all of the actors are well-chosen.  In some ways, Michael Jai White has an impossible role.  Tyson has such a famous persona that it had to be difficult to play him without slipping into mere impersonation but White does a good job of suggesting that there is more to Tyson than just his voice and his anger.  Scott and Winfield are both ideally cast as Tyson’s contrasting father figures, with Winfield especially digging into the Don King role.

HBO’s Tyson is a good starter if you do not know anything about Mike’s early career but the definitive Mike Tyson film remains James Toback’s documentary, which also happens to be titled Tyson.

Film Review: Sully (dir by Clint Eastwood)


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The new film Sully is about several different things.

Most obviously, it’s about what has come to be known as the Miracle on the Hudson.  On January 15th, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 had just departed from New York’s LaGuardia Airport when it was struck by a flock of geese.  (They say that it was specifically hit by Canadian Geese but I refuse to believe that Canada had anything to do with it.)  With both of the engines taken out and believing that he wouldn’t be able to get the plane back to either LaGuardia or an airport in New Jersey, the flight’s plot, Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks) landed his plane on the Hudson River.  Not only did Sullenberger manage to execute a perfect water landing but he also did so without losing a single passenger.

I’m sure that we can all remember that image of that plane sitting on the river with passengers lined up on the wings.  We can also remember what a celebrity Sully became in the days following the landing.  At a time of national insecurity and cynicism, Sully reminded us that people are still capable of doing great things.  It also helped that Sully turned out to be a rather humble and self-effacing man.  He didn’t use his new-found fame to host a reality TV show or run for Congress, as many suggested he should.  Instead, he wrote a book, raised money for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and appeared in two commercials for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Wisely, Sully opens after the Miracle on the Hudson, with Sully still struggling to come to terms with suddenly being a celebrity.  (That said, we do get to see the landing in flashbacks.  In fact, we get to see it twice and it’s harrowing.  The “Brace! Brace!” chant is pure nightmare fuel.)  Tom Hanks plays up Sully’s modesty and his discomfort with suddenly being a hero.  Even while the rest of the world celebrates his accomplishment, Sully struggles with self-doubt.  Did he make the right decision landing the plane on the Hudson or did he mistakenly endanger the lives of all the passengers and crew members?

A lot of people would probably say, “What does it matter?  As long as he succeeded, who cares if he actually had to do it?”  Well, it matters to Sully.  Some of it is a matter of professional pride.  And a lot of it is because the soulless bureaucrats at the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating Sully’s landing.  If it’s determined that he could have made it back to airport and that he unnecessarily endangered the lives of everyone on the plane, he could lose his job and his pension.  As we see in a few scenes with Sully’s wife (Laura Linney, who is somewhat underused), the Sullenbergers really need that pension.

That brings us to another thing that Sully is about.  It’s a celebration of not only individual heroism but individuality itself.  The NTSB claims that they have computer-generated recreations that prove Sully had enough time and fuel to return to an airport but, as Sully himself points out, the NTSB has ignored the human element in their recreations.  As a result of their obsession with regulation and procedure, the bureaucrats have forgotten that planes are not flown by computers but individuals who have to make split-second decisions.

That’s one of the things that I loved about Sully.  In this time when we’re constantly being told that our very future is dependent upon always trusting the bureaucrats and following their rules and regulations, Sully reminds us that the government is only as good as the people who work for it.  And, far too often, the people are smug and complacent morons.

(For the record, Sullenberger has said that the real-life hearings were not as confrontational as the ones depicted in the film.  However, even taking into account the dramatic license, the overall message still rings true.)

And finally, Sully is a film about what America has become in the wake of 9-11.  Just as in real-life, the film’s Sully suffers from PTSD in the days immediately following the Miracle on the Hudson.  Even while the rest of the world celebrates him, Sully has nightmares about what could have happened if he hadn’t made the landing.  When we watch as Sully’s plane collides with a New York skyscraper, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the horrible images of September 11th.  Not only does it drive home what was at stake when Sully made that landing but it also reminds us that, regardless of what some would want us to beg, there are still heroes in the world.  Not every story has to end in tragedy.  People are still capable of doing great things.  Heroism is not dead.  With tomorrow being the 15-year anniversary of the day when 3,000 people were murdered in New York, Pennsylvania, and D.C., it’s important to be reminded of that.

Sully is a powerful and crowd-pleasing film.  (The normally cynical audience at the Alamo Drafthouse broke into applause at the end of the movie.)  Director Clint Eastwood tells this story in a quick, no-nonsense style.  During this time of bloated running times, Sully clocks in at 97 minutes and it’s still a million times better than that 150-minute blockbuster you wasted your money on last week.  Toss in Tom Hanks at his best and you’ve got one of the best films of the year so far.