Alpha Dog has been in the headlines quite a bit ever since last year’s Sundance Film Festival and not coincidentally the headlines actually spawned Alpha Dog. The true story concerns a drug dealer named Jesse James Hollywood who would become one of the youngest people ever on the FBI’s most-wanted list; Alpha Dog for the most part and rather glossily tells the rest of the story. Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch)—the Jesse James Hollywood character—is a hothead drug dealer well respected in his suburbanite posse which includes sycophant Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) and burnout Frankie (Justin Timberlake). After speed freak Jake Marzursky (Ben Foster) shorts him in a pot deal and vandalizes his house Johnny exacts revenge by kidnapping Jake’s young brother Zack (Anton Yelchin). To Zack the kidnapping is a blessing an intro to the party lifestyle he’s always wondered about and Johnny and co. aren’t sweating what they think is a scare tactic. But when they learn they’re looking at (long) hard time for the kidnapping the guys realize that simply returning Zack to his house might not be an option. Even though the only real difference between Timberlake and his Frankie may lie in the number of tattoos his (for all intents and purposes) debut performance is a genuine eye-opener and further proof that when you’ve got “it ” the medium just doesn’t matter. Throughout much of the movie Timberlake’s best work is simply making you forget he’s the world’s biggest pop star but he shines most during the movie’s dramatic climax. Yelchin (TV’s Huff) also excels. He’s blessed—or perhaps in Hollywood cursed—with a face that will probably always look younger than it is and that along with his accompanying expressions makes you feel a number of things for his character. Rising star Hirsch (Lords of Dogtown) plays Truelove—in real life the central figure—with equal parts cool and A.J. Soprano hissy fits while Foster (Hostage) is his archenemy and antithesis simmering or exploding in every scene. Audiences will laugh at Foster’s over-the-top turn but it suits the absurdity of his character. Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone as parents thrown into the ordeal don’t add much beyond their names but Stone’s botched fat suit in one scene kills an otherwise raw moment. Writer/director Nick Cassavetes turned The Notebook into a surprise box office hit (with a little help from Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling of course) and unfortunately that’s what he tries for with Alpha Dog. It’s a movie that should be more along the lines of Larry Clark’s uncompromising Bully instead of a cross between that film and say Malibu's Most Wanted. Furthermore it seems the Timberlake Effect swayed the director into MTV territory as he apparently tries to reel in some of the pop star’s contingency when this is certainly no kids’ tale even though it’s about kids. But despite the movie’s often ambiguous tone and frequent testosterone injections Cassavetes manages to engage us and take us along for the roller coaster ride. He captures with great accuracy the reckless abandon and invincibility complex with which these specific people operate (and party)—it’s pure hedonism for them and the audience. Until he sets reality into place at which point it inches closer to the aforementioned Bully.
Detective Graham Waters (Don Cheadle) and his partner Ria (Jennifer Esposito) get into a car accident en route to investigate a murdered body found in a canyon overlooking Los Angeles. Ria is ready to snap necks but Graham explains "It's the sense of touch…I think we miss that sense of touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something." He ain't kiddin'. Crash begins at the end after 24 hours that have not only irrevocably changed Graham's life but also the lives of several other L.A. denizens who have inadvertently collided with one another. We go back to the previous day and meet an angry Brentwood housewife (Sandra Bullock) and her D.A. husband (Brendan Fraser) who have their car stolen at gunpoint by two carjackers (Larenz Tate and Chris "Ludacris"
Bridges); a paranoid Persian store owner (Shaun Toub) who tangles with a kindly Mexican locksmith (Michael Pena); a rookie LAPD cop (Ryan Phillippe) and his veteran partner (Matt Dillon) who harass an affluent black couple (Terrence Howard and Thandie
Newton) and then later ironically save them in separate hair-raising incidents. Black and white victim and aggressor there doesn't seem to be a right or a wrong as things escalate and culminate. The only common thread is the fact that life is too short to be filled with fear and intolerance.
The all-star cast is nothing less than spectacular. Cheadle tops the list as the beleaguered detective who keeps people including his partner and sometimes lover Esposito at a distance making his inevitable speech about touch even more poignant. This Oscar-nominated actor has the unique gift of lifting a scene to a whole new level just by sitting in silence. Bullock steps out of her America's Sweetheart box for a little while and plays the bigoted but lonely housewife while Fraser plays her workaholic husband with stoic detachment. As the cops Dillon giving one of his better performance to date and Phillippe aptly represent the two sides of the same coin: the racist careworn veteran whose vulnerability is revealed in a subtle way and the idealistic newcomer whose anxiety-ridden day takes its toll in a tragic way. Howard and Newton also turn in superb performances as respectively a television director who hardly ever makes waves and his emotionally wounded wife who can't believe her husband won't fight for her. Most of the more comical moments if you can call them that are provided by Tate (A Man Apart) and Bridges who emerges as yet another rapper who can act. His diatribes about racial relations are spot on. And lastly Crash's most heartening moments come from Pena (TV's The Shield). One night to allay his young daughter's fears he creates an invisible cloak that will forever protect her from harm--only to see it put to the test. It just rips your heart right out of your chest.
Television writer Paul Haggis who makes his directorial feature debut with Crash says his "aim with this film is to explore how intolerance is a collective problem." He should know. Living in Los Angeles he and his wife were once carjacked at gunpoint. Luckily no one was hurt but that one fateful night forced him out of complacency. Suddenly he wasn't immune. But more importantly he began thinking about who these carjackers were what kind of lives they lead--and Crash was born. Los Angeles is the perfect setting as the characters move around independently in their cars and in their homes. This insulated atmosphere only heightens the tension in the film. Real danger lurks on every frame--even in the lighter moments--and it's so gut-wrenching at times it's hard to watch. But just when you are certain some tragedy is about to occur Crash switches gears and surprises you. Of course films of this nature--such as Grand Canyon and Boyz N The Hood which do everything possible to get you to think and react--can also come off a tad preachy at times. In Crash's case it's a sermon we ought to listen to. You'll be hard pressed not to recognize at least to some degree a small part of yourself up there on screen.