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Johnny is a Los Angeles drug dealer. He comes from a good family, owns his home, several cars and enjoys partying with his friends. Johnny is 19. When his friend Jake welches on a debt, Johnny and his boys kidnap Jake's 15-year-old brother Butch and hold him as a marker. Even though Butch has numerous chances to escape, he doesn't. He's enjoying partying with them, losing his virginity and having a good time - until something goes horribly wrong
For more about Alpha Dog and the Alpha Dog Blu-ray release, see Alpha Dog Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on July 22, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Ben Foster, Shawn Hatosy, Emile Hirsch, Sharon Stone, Justin Timberlake, Anton Yelchin
Director: Nick Cassavetes
» See full cast & crew
Alpha Dog Blu-ray Review
Nick Cassavetes’ true crime ensemble piece finally hits Blu-ray
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, July 22, 2010
I'll give writer/director/sometime actor Nick Cassavetes this: he's unpredictable. After helming the weepy 1940's melodrama The Notebook—in which he ham-fistedly tugged at our heartstrings—he decided to take on the brutal, real life story of drug-peddling Jesse James Hollywood, the youngest criminal to ever grace the FBI's Most Wanted list, a wannabe Tony Montana who was captured in 2005 for the 1999 kidnapping and murder of a naive 15-year-old. Cassavetes' fictionalization of the tale, Alpha Dog, is as far removed from the maudlin, elderly lovers parted by death plot of The Notebook as possible, but just as the Nicholas Sparks-penned swansong is over-sweetened, Alpha Dogs is often over-dosed, too hopped up and frantic, high on its own true crime supply. Nonetheless, the film is compelling—entertaining is definitely the wrong word—as it explores a drug culture where adults act like children and teenagers try desperately to seem adult.
The crime film begins almost incongruously, with a montage of childhood super-8 movies and VHS videos set to a plaintive rendition of "Over the Rainbow." These are happy, well-adjusted kids, playing in the backyard, having a good time. Obviously, this isn't going to last. If nothing else, Alpha Dog is about innocence ended too soon. To prove that point we're introduced to Jesse James Hollywood, renamed Johnny Truelove here and played by versatile actor Emile Hirsch. Johnny, at the ripe old age of 20, is one of So-Cal's premiere dope dealers, raised into the profession by his father Sonny (Bruce Willis), who serves as his supplier. You might say Johnny is a chunk, not a chip, off the old block.
Johnny's so loaded that he already owns a large house, and he's got an entourage of likeminded youth-gone-bad, including Elvis (Shawn Hatosy), a servile sycophant who owes Johnny his life, and Frankie (Justin Timberlake), a laid-back right-hand man. Currently, though, there's trouble in druggie paradise. Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a crank-addict and neo-Nazi skinhead from a well-to- do Jewish family—how's that for a walking contradiction—owes Johnny twelve hundred bucks. There's a scuffle, brandished guns, death threats. These kids have been watching too many rap videos. Jake even takes a steaming dump in Johnny's living room in retaliation.
So, what does Johnny do? In broad daylight—in front of witnesses, no less—he kidnaps Jake's younger brother Zack (Anton Yelchin), a sweet-faced 15-year-old who's experimenting with pot, getting into trouble with his parents, and basically ambling along in his elder bro's footsteps. Charged with prison guard duty, Frankie keeps the kid hostage at his father's palatial estate— complete with a garden where pot is grown alongside organic vegetables—and for a while, being kidnapped is a win-win situation for Zack, who gets to smoke a lot of weed, play video games, and flirt with a procession of sexy young party girls, including Big Love's Amanda Seyfried, who comes to call him "Stolen Boy." As it slowly dawns on Johnny, however, that he could be in a metric shit-ton of trouble with the law if word of the kidnapping leaks, Zack's fate teeters precariously.
Informed viewers will already know what happens, but that doesn't stop the director from ratcheting up the tension and toying with our expectations. Admittedly, the whole set up, even though it's based on a true story, feels emotionally trumped up, even manipulative. After seeing Zack bond with his captors and essentially come of age throughout the course of the film, it's impossible to not be moved as he pleads for his life. The tone throughout is a bit uneven, tilted too often toward absurdly comic moments, like when Jake takes out a roomful of partiers with vicious Tae-kwon-do moves. (So, make that black belt, speed-addled, Jewish neo-Nazi skinhead.) Foster does give the film's most intense performance—his face ticks, his eyes dart, and he erupts into sudden, esophagus-searing screams—but at times it goes a little too far. Emile Hirsch is more balanced, and he manages to undercut his character's bravado with palpable cowardice. The best acting, though, comes from Justin Timberlake, whose dramatic chops prove equal to his comedic, dick-in-a-box-on-SNL skills. The relationship that develops between Timberlake and Anton Yelchin is deftly played and one of the most fulfilling aspects of the film.
Cassavetes frames Alpha Dog as a docu-drama, placing text onscreen to indicate times, locations, and the names of witnesses, and he also occasionally stages fake interviews with the actors playing the family members of those involved. In the film's worst scene, part of an unnecessary epilogue, Sharon Stone—who plays Zack's mom—is forced to emote while wearing an extremely fake-looking fat suit. There are far better ways to show that a woman has been affected by trauma. Bruce Willis fares better as Sonny, and early on, in one of the mock interviews, he gets to sum up the film's theme: "This whole thing is about parenting, about taking care of your children." And it certainly is. The film's biggest accomplishment is the way it dissects the lives of rich parents who act like teenagers while expecting their privileged children to act like adults. The absentee moms and dads may not be completely to blame for the actions of their children, but they're certainly complicit. Johnny and his gangsta-wannabe cohorts are allowed to live in a perpetual fantasy world, and when reality inevitably intrudes, they lack the mental wherewithal to make good decisions. It's all fun and games until someone gets shot.
Alpha Dog Blu-ray, Video Quality
Alpha Dog appeared on HD DVD in early 2007 and Universal has just now gotten around to bringing it out on Blu-ray, with a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that may not be eye-gougingly lifelike, but definitely fulfills all of the film's intentions. The best news is that the image doesn't appear to be tampered with at all; a thin grain structure is intact, edge enhancement is nowhere to be seen, and color is natural and balanced. Likewise, I didn't spot any odd compression anomalies. The picture has a rich, filmic texture, and clarity is generally very strong, with ample detail visible in both close-ups and longer shots. Most of the film has a grim color palette—especially the parts that take place outside at night or in dimly lit interiors—but there are occasional flashes of vividness, like the desert outside Palm Springs and daylight poolside scenes. Contrast is nice and tight, and while black levels are usually solid, some of the nighttime scenes look a bit flat and grayish in order to retain shadow detail. Perhaps the only downside to seeing Alpha Dog in high definition is that the fat suit Sharon Stone wears at the end of the film looks incredibly fake and her make-up overly harsh. Of course, I can't dock the transfer for that, but it is somewhat jarring.
Alpha Dog Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Alpha Dog's appearance on Blu-ray is accompanied by a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that's mostly hip hop and dialogue driven. There's less out-and-out violence and action in the film than you'd think, so there's really not much else for this track to do. The rear channels don't get a whole lot of play, with few cross-channel movements or effects that require directional precision, but the back of the soundfield sometimes swells with ambience, like drunken party chatter or outdoorsy sounds. Most of the intensity comes from up front, as characters scream at each other and rap beats or the occasional metal riff blare loudly. While it has definite presence, the music is sometimes overly abrasive and shrill. This seems intentional, though, a way of underscoring the insanity of what's happening on screen. Dialogue, however, is always intelligible, riding high enough in the mix to never get swamped in the surrounding sounds.
Alpha Dog Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
A Cautionary Tale: The Making of Alpha Dog (SD, 11:29)
The only special feature included on the disc is this "making of" documentary, which features scads of behind-the-scenes footage along with interviews—with the director and actors—that are actually insightful. (Not exactly a rarity, but unusual when most "making of" docs are pure EPK fluff.) It's definitely worth watching, but I wish there were additional features that delved into the facts of the real-life case and the controversy surround the film's release.
Alpha Dog Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Gritty, unrestrained, and at times almost unbearably chaotic, Alpha Dog is like an after-school special gone terribly, horribly wrong, a grim reminder of why good parenting should never fall out of fashion. Director Nick Cassavetes throws us head first into a young adult drug culture where most decisions are poor decisions, and where poor decisions have life-altering—and ending—consequences. A good film, but not a great one, Alpha Dog will appeal to the true crime crowd and, possibly, the same kind of bad-apple kids that it depicts. The film makes a strong showing on Blu-ray—aside from a lack of substantive special features—so if you're interested, I see no reason not to pick this one up.
Alpha Dog: Other Editions
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Alpha Dog Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Universal Announces July Catalog Blu-ray Wave - April 12, 2010
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has announced three crime/thriller movies from its catalog for release on Blu-ray on July 13: Alpha Dog, Assault on Precinct 13 (the 2005 remake) and the more comedy-oriented In Bruges (new to high-def optical media in the US). ...
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