(In French, On DVD, September 2017) If there is a problem with true-life crime movies, it’s that they’re inevitably constrained by the real events, and any deviations from the truth, even to heighten drama, is seen as a betrayal. For filmmakers, the balance is tricky—too much drama and you may disappoint viewers, not enough and you risk boring them. As it stands, Alpha Dog stands closer to boredom even despite changing quite a few things about the real events that inspired it. It really doesn’t help that it chooses to tell itself through grainy naturalistic cinematography, bathing everything in grime and lowlight artifacts. The events described are depressing in their unravelling, as a fake kidnapping evolves into a real murder in a group of disaffected teenagers constantly up to no good. Their coterie of girlfriends doesn’t help, nor the dog-eat-dog aggression of their clique. Alpha Dog may be realistic, and that makes it even more dispiriting. While handled well, it does suffer from a far too long running time and a conclusion that spirals into nothingness. Addressing both of those issues, however, would have meant even greater deviations from reality, so who knows if these choices were the correct ones? Despite the film’s dullness, there is still some interest in seeing the young actors assembled here—many of them would go on to much better things over the following decade. Justin Timberlake is remarkable as a supporting player, while Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Anton Yelchin (among many others) also show up in main roles, with Dominique Swain, Olivia Wilde, Amanda Seyfried share inglorious small roles as the girlfriends. Alpha Dog may not be an easy film to like, but it does have its high points.
(Netflix Streaming, May 2017) It says much about today’s Hollywood that we’ve come to crave solid crime thrillers as an alternative to the usually undistinguishable dreck that has come to dominate multiplexes. Hell or High Water is a throwback to the time when this kind of crime drama, solidly acted, put together with skill, eschewing formula and taking on social issues, was a fixture rather than an exception. Here, Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as brothers trying to stop a bank’s takeover of their family farm by robbing branches of that very same bank. The populist anger runs raw in this film, which only heightens the drama when an affable veteran policeman (Jeff Bridges, gritty as ever) chases them across the state. The result is very much like a modern western, with SUVs replacing horses as our antiheroes go rob banks in small cities. It’s a solid script by Taylor Sheridan (who’s improving from movie to movie), and David Mackenzie’s direction effectively manages to portray East Texas in a credible fashion. It’s also, refreshingly, a movie that cares for even its minor characters: There are two waitress characters in the film, for instance, and both of them (Katy Mixon and Margaret Bowman) get a few memorable moments well beyond the usual “here’s your food, sweetheart”. There are no clear good or bad guys here, as viewers’ loyalties are tested and the film refuses a conventionally uplifting resolution. This being said, Hell or High Water does ends leaving a sense of satisfaction at the way the story is wrapped up, having taken us on a ride unlike most other big-budget movies out there. As a standalone movie, it’s crunchy good viewing. As an antidote to the current Hollywood orthodoxy, though, it’s nothing short of delicious.
(In theatres, September 2009) I had been looking forward to this B-grade horror/SF hybrid for generally nostalgic reasons: There hasn’t been any spaceship-monster-movie in a while, and I was starting to miss even dreck like Supernova. But if Pandorum isn’t much more than a B-grade horror/SF hybrid, it’s at least a bit more ambitious than the usual “latex bug kills everyone” scenario: Subplots add up nicely until there are about half a dozen separate dangers threatening our protagonists, and while the conclusion is so stupid it burns, it does try something a bit more interesting than blowing the creature outside the airlock. Sadly, getting there is more tedious than fun entertaining: Pandorum has an inordinate fondness for black-on-black color tones, and the pacing dwells far too long on the same pieces of soundstage locations. There’s little connecting tissue between the film’s episodes, and that tissue disappears almost entirely during the lame shaky-cam action sequences that lift almost everything from 28 Days Later: Events in some scenes can only be figured out until they end, if at all. No, this isn’t a minor space horror classic like Event Horizon, although the film has a few nice moments and both Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster both do well in their respective roles. Pandorum does manage to fill its B-movie niche quite nicely, and has a few more ideas than the typical almost-straight-to-DVD feature. Could have been worse, and it will do until the next spaceship monster movie.