Category Archives: Archived Movies

ALPHA DOG

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C+

A real-life incident from 2000 inspired—albeit rather loosely—this flashy but skin-deep story of a teen kidnapped by the well-to-do young thugs to whom his brother owes money. The kid—unwisely, as it turns out—cooperates with his captors, even to the extent of treating his experience as a good-natured lark, until tragedy strikes. Whether it’s intended as a cautionary tale or just a pulpy picture of pampered kids gone bad, “Alpha Dog” has considerable energy, some interesting performances and a powerful climax. Unfortunately, though slick it’s also superficial, a few of the performances are either flat or exaggerated, and an overly long coda, complete with a directorial decision that unintentionally turns high drama into near farce, nearly derails it entirely.

The script by Nick Cassavetes is based on the story of Jesse James Hollywood, who was charged with kidnapping and killing Nicholas Markowitz, the brother of one of his drug customers. Though four of Hollywood’s confederates were tried and convicted, he himself fled, and wouldn’t be tracked down and taken into custody until 2005. (His trial is still pending, and a legal challenge has been raised to the release of the film on the ground that the writer-director was improperly given access to the case file by prosecutors and that its distribution could jeopardize the possibility of a fair hearing.)

But the fact that Cassavetes has taken significant liberties with the record and engaged in a good deal of speculation, as well as reconstruction, is indicated by the change of some names. The Hollywood character here is Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), whose father Sonny (Bruce Willis) is a wiseguy of sorts. Johnny is a small-time drug dealer with a posse of reckless pals, most notably garrulous, well-to-do rebel Frankie (Justin Timberlake) and intense wannabe Elvis (Shawn Hatosy). They, and their other buddies, live what seems to be one long party.

But the atmosphere of drug-fueled hedonism is shattered by one of Johnny’s customers, violent, short-tempered user Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), who trashes the dealer’s pad in retaliation for being dissed over an overdue payment. Jake’s parents (Sharon Stone and David Thornton) refuse to give him any more help, although his younger brother, quiet, recessive Zack (Anton Yelchin), idolizes him.

Matters heat up when Johnny happens on Zack one day and decides to kidnap him as a way of forcing Jake to pay up. The kid’s not badly treated—indeed, the fact is that the kid enjoys his introduction to the wild life, especially after Johnny puts the easygoing Frankie in charge of him—but when Johnny realizes that the abduction might put him into serious legal trouble, he enlists Elvis to take care of the problem permanently. And anxious to prove himself, he does.

This is a pretty seedy story, and Cassavetes pulls out all the stops in telling it. As writer he jazzes up the narrative with lots of shouting, steamy sexual situations and bursts of violence; he also has characters “testify” directly to the camera about what happened. (It’s one of those recollections at the end, with Stone in makeup so ludicrously unconvincing that it can’t be taken seriously, that deflates the movie badly.) And he directs his own script with every over-the-top trick he can think of—split screens, documentary-style “identifications” of people, times and places, and, of course, a wild visual virtuosity that mirrors the swagger of the characters themselves. The upshot of all this is that the picture generates a good deal of grim energy, not unlike what might have been expected of a seventies exploitation flick, but what results is more heat than light, more bluster than insight. There’s one exception to the rule, in the scene in which Zack, Elvis and Frankie play out the sad conclusion to the kidnapping. Only here does Cassavetes really dig beneath the surface and strike a real emotional chord.

The approach has a strange effect on the cast, some of whom are hysterical and others almost somnolent. At one extreme there’s Foster, who’s so riotously excessive that manic is far too gentle a word for his performance. Timberlake goes for broke, too, but it works better in his case, because he shares so much screen time with Yelchin, whose quiet sensitivity balances the equation (and makes for the most real and affecting character in the picture). Hirsch is restrained as well, but in his case the effect isn’t nearly as strong: he comes across as simply dull, and it doesn’t help that he seems to disappear for long stretches; and Hatosy offers only a generalized sort of fury. There are decent supporting turns from some of the younger members of the large cast—Vincent Kartheiser, Fernando Vargas, Lukas Haas, Dominique Swain—but vets Stone and Willis, as well as a slumming Harry Dean Stanton, seem to be operating on autopilot. On the technical side, cinematographer Robert Fraisse and editor Alan Heim serve Cassavetes’ frenetic style efficiently, as does the pulsating background music.

But all the sound and fury can’t disguise the fact that “Alpha Dog” doesn’t signify much. Its bravado holds the interest, but ultimately it’s about as profound as a piece on “Dateline” or “48 Hours Mystery.”

MISS POTTER

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C+

More than a decade ago Chris Noonan wrote and directed “Babe,” one of the most enchanting of all family films. Now, having been out of the spotlight since then—a hiatus of late Kubrickian proportion—he returns with this mildly pleasant but ultimately rather tepid biopic of the Victorian-era author of the “Peter Rabbit” books. “Miss Potter” is amiable but, despite a vaguely feminist stance and a narrative turn in favor of environmental consciousness toward the close (not unlike “Happy Feet”), a mite too weightless to be much more than nebulously nice.

Richard Maltby, Jr.’s script centers on the very beginning of the author’s professional career in the early 1900s. Beatrix (Renee Zellweger) is presented as a slightly ugly-duckling type who’s always been an imaginative storyteller and is devoted to her drawings of personable animals in pretty pastels. Her artistic proclivities have been persistently supported by her genial father (Bill Paterson), but the likelihood that she’s turning into a spinster distresses her mother (Barbara Flynn), a determined social climber very conscious of appearances, who has assigned her a dour gray-haired chaperone (Matyelok Gibbs) to assure her name is never besmirched.

Beatrix is unimpressed by any suitor and remains determined to see her peculiar beast fables published, despite the fact that no firm expresses any interest in them. One story is accepted, however, by the Warne Press, whose two operators decide to fob the project off on their younger brother Norman (Ewan McGregor), who’s been demanding to join the company, merely as a way of placating him. Norman proves as anxious to do the book right as Beatrix is to have it properly realized, and their joint commitment results not only in an impeccable little volume but—to everyone’s astonishment—an instant best seller that becomes the first of many. And, of course, working together engenders one of those veddy British romances between Potter and Warne—you know, one marked by much dithering on the part of the woman and clumsy courtship on the part of the man, with the elderly chaperone humorously outmaneuvered while the lady’s mother frets over the fact that it would make an unequal match (Norman being a common tradesman and all).

Happily, Warne’s gregarious proto-feminist sister Millie (Emily Watson), takes a quick shine to Beatrix and not only becomes her best—indeed, only—friend but encourages her to say yes when Norman finally proposes. But misfortune falls when Beatrix strikes a deal with her concerned parents, agreeing to postpone the nuptials over a summer to test the truth of her love; and in the interval tragedy occurs. That leads to a rather anticlimactic final act, in which Potter moves to a rural area where her fortune allows her to become an early land preservationist against the encroachments of developers and speculators.

As written by Maltby, this is a likable if rather bland biographical story, which Noonan treats with a curious placidity that leaves it feeling oddly limp; the only special effort to spruce it up comes from animated sequences in which Potter’s characters briefly come to life on the page to interact with her—but though spiffily done, these are kept to a minimum (probably a good idea, as their overuse could have seemed arch). But at least the director refrains from dousing things in sentiment, as other helmers might well have done. The cast generally works well for him, though unfortunately its major element—Zellweger—is the weakest link. Her accent is fine, and her plainness suits the part, but she never manages to generate the warmth that would make us identify with the character. (Lucy Boynton, who plays Beatrix as a young girl in the early going, actually strikes a more persuasive note.) On the other hand, MacGregor is a model of befuddled charm, Watson is very winning (even if Millie seems an anachronistically modern character), Paterson and Flynn are just about perfect for their roles, and Gibbs proves a wonderful scene-stealer. The film is beautifully made, with creamy cinematography by Andrew Dunn that complements Martin Childs’s colorful production design, Mark Raggett’s art direction, Tina Jones’s elaborate sets and Anthony Powell’s lovely costumes. And the score by Nigel Westlake and Rachel Portman serves the mood without being particularly imaginative.

But in the end “Miss Potter” is rather like its subject’s books—pretty to look at, sweet without being syrupy and cute without being cloying, but rather thin.