Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Alpha Dog

Title: Alpha Dog
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Released: 2006
Staring: Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Dominique Swain, Bruce Willis, Shawn Hatosy, Olivia Wilde, Sharon Stone, Ben Foster, Amanda Seyfried, Anton Yelchin

Plot: Johnny Truelove (Hirsch) a young drug dealer and son of underworld figure Sonny Truelove (Willis) orchestrates an impulsive kidnapping of Zach Mazursky (Yelchin), hoping that it will force his older brother Jake (Foster) to pay up his debts, but things soon things begin to spiral quickly out of control.

Review: Based on the events in August 2000 which lead to the murder of Nicholas Markowitz, with the film changing the names of those involved, as well as being set a year earlier, which puts the setting for the film on November 1999, which is an unusual move for a biopic but certainly not unheard of especially after “Domino” (2005), which so proudly proclaimed that it was based “on the truth and the lies” and it’s seemingly expected that the decision to make such changes to allow for the more fictional elements of the film to help link together the events which lead to Markowitz’s murder, without receiving criticism for fabrication of the facts. Still what director Cassavetes has unwittingly also created is possibly the most raw and and realistic portrayal of youth culture since Larry Clarke’s highly controversial debut “Kids” (1995) while also being equally comparable to Clarke’s own stab at the same genre with his equally controversial “Bully” (2001) a film which it is essentially the easiest to compare to, as both feature over sexed, drug fuelled suburban teens, making rash criminal choices and being forced to face the consequences of such actions.

Opening with Truelove and his crew working out while tossing about gangsta style slang and tough guy bravado, it would be hard believe that these characters have not escaped from one of Clarke’s films, especially as these are the sort of characters he tends to favour, especially with every other word seeming being a dererative of the word f**k or some other curse word, but then these are young men in their early twenties and it’s allot more realistic than the smart ass, pop culture reference heavy dialogue which usually accompanies most movie teens these days. Still these are rich kids with nothing better to do than, further their gangster fantasies as they pop pills and snort their away through adolescence, with Truelove playing ringleader to this circus of fools, all buying into the lifestyle that Truelove and his followers are trying to emulate, with Truelove in particular seemingly trying to follow in the criminal footsteps of his father, while hiding his own cowardly ways behind his tough guy bravado, a fact known all to well by the short fused Jake, whose own conflict with Truelove leads to Truelove grabbing Jake’s younger and more naive brother Zack. Interestingly this portrayal of Truelove is almost the opposite of his real life counter part, who was not only the youngest man to ever make the FBI's most wanted list, but also demonstrated high levels of intelligence which helped him elude the FBI for a number of years after the murder.

It’s once the group have grabbed Zack that things take very “Kids” esq turn, for Zack isn’t taped up to a chair for the duration of the film while being continuously tormented by his kidnappers, but instead left in the care of Frankie (Timberlake), who in turn brings him inside the groups inner circle, soon seeing Zack being caught up in the faux glamour of their world, while happily drinking, smoking weed and engaging in swimming pool threesome’s, all things his mother has seemingly worked so hard to shelter him from, especially with his older brother being now deemed a loss cause. It’s Zack's journey into faux adulthood that makes the film distinctly different from most crime dramas and did make me forget what sort of film I was watching which in a way makes the actual murder all the more shocking when it happens, especially after being lead on this hedonistic journey only for it too all come suddenly crashing to a close. Still it was these scenes which took me the most by surprise, especially having put off watching the film, expecting another teens making very bad choices movie and really not wanting to see another film trying to emulate Larry Clarke’s work, something which the British film industry has been frequently responsible for adding to and a cinematic crime that Noel Clarke has been especially guilty of adding to with trash like “Kidulthood” and it’s much unwanted sequel “Adulthood”, but here director Cassavetes has certainly managed to find his own unique voice for his characters, so that they are all individual even if they frequently seem to share the same voice.

Despite upon the films release the critics were keen to comment on the fact that Timberlake could actually act, especially as this film added to his then radical attempts to move away from his teenie bobber status and true he is very good in this film, as he was also in the much underrated “Southland Tales” (2006), here providing the moral voice of the group, as he frequently questions the situation the group have found them in, to the point were he even offers Zack an open invitation to escape, while later accepting Zack as part of the group which makes Zack’s eventual demise all the more wrenching to watch, knowing that his protector has ultimately betrayed them. Still the true standout performance here is an honour that instead belongs to Foster, who is best remembered as the nerdy love interest of Claire Fisher on “Six Feet Under” a role he is truly a polar opposite of here, were he is a 100% badass while demonstrating fighting skills I never knew he had, as demonstrated by a house party beat down, were he single handily batters numerous opponents with ease.

In terms of star power amongst the cast it is limited to Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone, with the cast at the time being comprised of largely unknown actors, despite many going on to larger roles, but both of these established actors put in strong performances, while being limited to strictly supporting with role, with Stone later donning a fat suit for her characters current day appearance as a woman truly broken by the death of her sun, while putting in a performance which is certainly one of her best in a long time, as woman who has truly lost everything, especially during the final scenes which prove to be the most emotionally powerful.

While some might grumble that the film takes liberties with the fact, with the case notes frequently being pushed into the background and largely limited to on screen notes highlighting and numbering witnesses to the case, while certainly not playing as fast and loose with the facts as “Domino” (2005) as memorably did to help cram in another shoot out and thankfully not the case here with director Cassavetes, not trading in the focus to work in more teenage flesh. Still viewed as either a youth in revolt movie or as a crime biopic, it's still a great film and one that dares to look at the darker side of popularity.

Monday, 3 October 2011


Title: Pieces
Director: Juan Piquer Simón
Released: 1982
Staring: Christopher George, Linda Day, Frank Braña, Edmund Purdom, Paul L. Smith, Ian Sera, Jack Taylor

Plot: A chainsaw welding killer with a bizarre obsession with jigsaw puzzles, stalks the young co-eds of a local college campus

Review: “Pieces” is a strange little film, despite the most traditional of slasher plots, it still manages more than it’s share of surreal moments to say the least and yet for some reason we the audience accept it as the norm, while also certainly doesn’t take away any of the fun, so that your not left asking yourself questions like were the hell that Kung Fu guy came from? (The simple answer to that one being that the producer Dick Randall, was shooting “Bruceploitation” movies nearby and Simón basically took advantage of the opportunity), or was the girl on the skateboard seen skating in the sheet plate glass was part of the killers plot or not.?

Opening with the killer as a young boy putting together a jigsaw, which turns out to be more raunchy than the usual ones as this one is of a naked woman (do they seriously make jigsaws like that?) and as per the rule that as soon as you choose to look at anything slightly risqué that your mum will walk in, unsurprisingly so does his who proceeds to chastise him for it, while also uncovering an impressive pile of smut that he has hidden away. In fact his collection is so extensive it did have me wondering how he managed to amass such a collection, especially when the rest of us at that age had to try and find our own porn discarded in hedge rows or steal it from older siblings. Facing his beloved collection being burned he makes what he considers to be the only rational choice and kills her with an axe, followed by sawing her head off and making the whole thing look like a home invasion killing, which even more bizarrely the police don’t even question, instead shipping him off to live with his aunt and no doubt further his serial killer urges seeing how forty years later he is lurking the college campus looking for victims for his latest scheme.

For some reason the police are pretty blasé to say the least about the fact that someone is running around the campus violently killing the student population with a chainsaw, with the police chief at one point dismissing a reporter’s question about the rumours of a killer being on the loose, by claiming “There are Maniac rumours at that school every couple of months!”, I mean seriously what sort of school really openly has a reputation like that, or they located perhaps a little too close to the local asylum? This however is just one of the numerous random bits of dialogue that stands out in this film, much like the classy line

“The most beautiful thing in the world is smoking pot and fucking on a waterbed”

Meanwhile the killing are all pretty random, with no real link between the victims other than that they are all horny young students. Still the deaths are were the killer really gets creative even with the Chainsaw being his ohh so subtle weapon of choice, with the killer finding frequently less plausible methods to conceal it, with my personal favourite being the elevator death, were he just holds it behind his back which somehow his victim fails to register, because of course it’s perfectly normal to be just carrying around a chainsaw. Still it’s these death scenes were Simón seems to have invested the most effort, as it certainly wasn’t in any other area of the film, making similar in many ways to the majority of the 80’s slasher output were it’s more about the spectacle than the characterisation. Still it doesn’t stop this film from being alot of fun and no doubt why it has become a favourite at midnight screenings and Horror movie marathons, let alone it’s completely bonkers shock ending, which providing someone hasn’t already tipped you off about it, will certainly catch you completely by surprise.

The gore despite being limited thanks to a surprisingly low body count, especially for a film called “Pieces”, let alone the cheeky tagline of

“You don’t have to go to Texas For A Chainsaw Massacre”

were you’d expect the bodies to be piling up, but like the film it cheekily nods to it is pretty restrained, though when you do get a death it is still highly visceral, with limbs being lopped off and bloody wounds comically painting the walls, which only adds to the fun for as graphic as this film get’s it’s aim more for shock and awe rather than trying to disgust the audience, especially with some of the effect looking so comically bad such as the opening axe to the head.

While this film might not be one of better slashers of the 80’s it certainly is not one of the worst, with it’s surreal moments making it a talking point for horror fans and trash cinema aficionados’ since it’s release it and it’s certainly a film which is best viewed with a group, to really make the most out of ribbing on the surreal moments, the sheer number of which making it hard to believe that some of it wasn’t intentional and covers for the numerous flaws throughout and seeing on how many moments work best with an element of surprise, I will recommend that it’s best to watch this film on DVD first, to avoid having them telegraphed by a rabid horror movie marathon and plus it means you can go to that same movie marathon and be a jerk like everyone else. As for director Simón he is not a director who I’ve had a huge amount of experience with outside of “Slugs” (1988), which certainly wasn’t as much fun as this film and despite his questionable talent behind the lens, it hasn’t stopped him building a dedicated fan base and with this film I can understand the appeal a little more than before, even if I’m not quite ready to join his fan base ranks.
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