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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Alpha Dog (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Alpha Dog (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Universal // R // May 1, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 13, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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Plenty of movies have been made about poor little rich kids who want to play gangster and quickly get in over their heads, but Alpha Dog plays it differently. Its characters snicker at the rappers they watch on music videos on their wall-mounted plasmas; these kids are barely out of high school, and yet they're convinced that the MCs are trying to emulate them, oblivious to the fact that none of them have ever fired a gun or done any hard time either. Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) thinks that he's the genuine article, and since his drug-peddling is picking up the tab for a
lifestyle that amounts to Spring Break at Señor Frogs for 52 weeks out of the year, none of his hangers-on have any reason to push him hard enough to find out how chickenshit he really is. He has a pit bull, a big-ass Scarface poster, and a pistol tucked in his pants, and that's enough to pass for street cred in his privileged circles. Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) isn't impressed, though; this strung-out, heavily tattooed, Jewish neo-Nazi telemarketer (?) is into him for $1,200, and he's hot-tempered enough to trash Johnny's house after being repeatedly humiliated. Johnny and his crew trawl the streets to retaliate, and although they aren't able to track down Jake, they stumble upon the next best thing: his fifteen-year-old kid brother.

Zack (Anton Yelchin) is worlds removed from his junkie half-brother, raised in suburban, white bread mundanity by doting parents straight out of a '50s sitcom. He's being held captive but barely seems to notice, shuttled around to a slew of ritzy homes by Johnny and his right-hand-man Frankie (Justin Timberlake). There's no need to keep the kid gagged and tied -- surrounded by drugs, liquor, and gorgeous young twentysomethings, he doesn't want to leave, even though some of his better-hearted captors offer him plenty of opportunities to take off. The idea's that Johnny and company are holding onto him to convince Jake to pay up, but it quickly becomes clear that none of these kids have any idea what they're doing; they haven't even figured out how let Jake know that they're holding onto his brother. Johnny eventually clues into how much jail time he faces if this ever gets out, and he decides that there's only one way to ensure that Zack doesn't talk.

Alpha Dog -- inspired by the real-life abduction of Nicholas Markowitz and its grisly aftermath -- is hardly the first movie to tackle the repercussions of bored rich kids watching too much MTV, but it does it better than most. Part of the intrigue is that movies like Havoc revolve around characters who decide they want to be the sort of thugs they watch on HBO-HD on 50" plasmas; their counterparts in Alpha Dogs have duped themselves into thinking they already are. Writer/director Nick Cassavetes doesn't bog them down with weepy backstories or flashbacks, instead preferring an intensely researched, almost documentary-like approach. The characters are still kids at their core: somewhat good at heart but naive, impulsive, and self-serving. There are no heroes or villains, and every one of them is responsible for what's unfolding. Cassavetes doesn't glorify these wannabes' lifestyle or paint these characters as fallen angels. They're irresponsible kids who hide behind F-bombs and a gangsta facade but still have to borrow mom's car, and it doesn't matter how charming or sporadically good-hearted they may seem. If Cassavetes damns anyone in the movie, it's their parents, who are too wrapped up in indulging their own vices or passively giving their children free reign to pay any attention what they're up to. Alpha Dog may be a movie that blares megadecibel hip-hop and is soaked in liquor, drugs, and sex -- not exactly hallmarks of subtlety -- but it makes its points without savagely beating the audience over the head with them.

Alpha Dog is admittedly not some sort of gritty indie masterpiece or masterfully crafted cautionary tale, though. Its almost voyeuristic fly-on-the-wall approach is interrupted by distracting split screen shots, and some scenes, such as a game of Marco Polo that segues into a waterlogged threeway, feel like the sort of clunky exploitation flick that Cinemax dumps onto one of its spinoff channels at 4 in the morning. Its ensemble is wildly uneven too. Anton Yelchin brings an instantly endearing youthful awkwardness to Zack; the movie hinges on the fact that the 15 year old is this easily seduced by sex, drugs, and the illusion of power, and he plays it perfectly. Justin Timberlake's inexperience as an actor bleeds through every once in a while, but he puts in an overall solid performance as Zack's conflicted watchdog, exuding the sort of charisma that the comparatively bland Emile Hirsch should and doesn't as the leader of this group. Other characters are kind of flat, playing stock parts or hamming it up too much. Ben Foster plays the incideniary, strung-out older brother with so much unrelenting aggression that an already inherently bizarre role starts to seem like a cartoon character, and Sharon Stone weeping in a Just Friends-grade fat suit as Alpha Dog limps along for another twenty minutes after already reaching its conclusion is particularly embarrassing.

A movie like this seems destined to settle for preachy afterschool special melodrama or vapid exploitation, but Nick Cassavetes has landed on a comfortable middle ground with his indictment of empty glamour and self-indulgence. Alpha Dog may not be a perfect movie, but I found it intriguing enough to at least recommend as a rental.

Video: Alpha Dog's stylized scope cinematography can be schizophrenic, and although this is by all accounts a fair representation of the way the movie looked theatrically, home theater eye candy it's not. A couple of documentary-style interviews scattered throughout Alpha Dog blow out the contrast, amp up the film grain, and boast a hypersaturated palette. Many of the darker scenes toss out fine detail and flatten the contrast out almost completely, with some of the climactic shots having a bizarre, milky grey appearance. Even the more brightly lit sequences can be all over the map, alternating between shots that are startlingly crisp and clear -- foliage, the texture of a baseball field, and the intricate tattoos sported by most of the leads are all immaculately detailed -- and others that are fuzzy and look as if they'd been shot through a smoky haze. Some posterization is also visible throughout the dimly-lit sequence when Mazurzky trashes Johnny Truelove's pad in the San Fernando Valley, but I was able to see some of the same issues on various displays with the DVD side of the disc, so presumably this is an issue with the master. Posterization aside, this HD DVD does appear to be representative of the way Alpha Dog was originally shot, so I can't hold that against Universal, especially considering what a dramatic improvement the high-def visuals are over the standard definition presentation on the flipside of this combo disc.

Audio: Universal has preferred high bitrate Dolby Digital Plus tracks to TrueHD audio, but Alpha Dog is one of just a handful of their HD DVDs to offer a lossless soundtrack. Switching back and forth between the two tracks, I could pick out a slight difference, but it's marginal enough that I wouldn't have been able to tell which was which if not for the on-screen display. That could just be owed to the fact that Alpha Dog isn't a bombastic action flick, relying instead on a hip-hop-heavy soundtrack and a reasonably strong sense of ambiance to flesh out the mix. The lower frequencies are impressively tight and punchy, and the mix does a nice job keeping the surround channels brimming with activity. Some of the film's dialogue occasionally felt a bit overwhelmed when the music was really pumping, but it's not that big a deal. Nothing earth-shattering or remarkable but still a solid effort.

Both sides of the disc include a 5.1 French dub as well along with the usual assortment of subtitles. A Spanish subtitle stream is not available on the high-definition presentation of the movie, though.

Extras: Alpha Dog was abandoned by its original distributor, and maybe that's why there are so few extras on this HD DVD. Ported over in standard definition and anamorphic widescreen from the DVD side of the disc is "A Cautionary Tale: The Making of Alpha Dog" (11 min.), a fairly typical making-of featurette with a mix of clips from the film, behind-the-scenes footage from the set, and interviews with most of the key cast and crew. It's a little meatier than usual, though, touching on some of the themes of the movie and the actors offering a bit of insight into their characters.

The only other extra is a timeline with brief statements from the witnesses who spot Zack along the way. The HD DVD has a U-Control feature that puts those statements in context as each witness is identified, but these statements just amount to a sentence or two, and it's more of a novelty than anything else. Because the Witness Timeline icon is present for the entire duration of the movie once Zack is snatched, I'd suggest avoiding enabling U-Control from the main menu and instead manually activating it with a press of the 'A' button, especially since the movie already has its own cues in place.

Conclusion: Alpha Dog suffers from its share of flaws, but I enjoyed it more than most. Still, there's a difference between enjoying something and finding it worth a $30-$40 sticker price, and the meager extras and unexceptional quality of the movie leave Alpha Dog better suited to a rental. Rent It.
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