Alpha Dog (2006) - Nick Cassavetes

“Dance bitch!” a young man named Frankie says to an hourglass-shaped woman in Nick Cassavetes’ latest teenage murder romp, Alpha Dog. And she does, lovingly, lithely, heart-stoppingly. Alpha Dog isn’t about drugs or even sex. It’s about power – who’s got it, who wants it, and who’s willing to smoke a markass trick to get it. In other words, it’s marginally fun to watch with moments of pain sprinkled throughout.

The dog of the title is Johnny Truelove, a weed-dealing, backwards hat-wearing, scowl-perfecting midget based on real-life weed-dealing, backwards hat-wearing, scowl-perfecting midget Jesse James Hollywood. The other dogs in the film vying for the position of Alpha are Frankie, Elvis, and one man who does not like b-boy Johnny very much named Jake Mazursky. Together, Johnny, Frankie, and Elvis are like three buds in a blunt, laughing, joking, and expressing vaguely homoerotic desires toward one another. There’s HIV in the air though. Jake, the neo-nazi next-door, won’t pay Johnny the dope money he owes. In fact, since Jake is a Nazi and does not subscribe to the idea of debt, he would rather kick Johnny’s ass than pay him.

The fun starts when Johnny kidnaps Jake’s younger brother Zach in the hope of getting Jake’s attention and confirming his true Alpha status. Jake flips out and goes Bruce Lee on an entire party. Johnny gets the runs and begins feeding Zach a steady diet of blunts and valium while he tries to figure out exactly how to avoid twenty years in prison on kidnapping charges. In between, Justin Timberlake takes Zach marijuana farming and the two become fast friends, Justin taking off his shirt and doing a pop-and-lock and Zach cheering him on.

Just as an old bong must finally discolor and crack and be placed on a mantle with other old bongs for the whole family to see, so too must Zach eventually depreciate in his value to Johnny and suffer the harsh reality of Alphadom. What was once a good idea does not seem so anymore and it’s only a matter of time before Bruce Willis is slapping Johnny around and Sharon Stone is screaming and Shawn Hatosy from Outside Providence is saying, “Sorry dawg, I didn’t want it to end this way” and the whole train is rattling and shaking and giving off all those little sparks like hot sleet and somebody is definitely not going to be home for stovetop tonight.

Alpha Blunt isn’t a bad movie, just somewhat generic. Although the real Jesse James apparently ruled the greater San Fernando valley with an iron vaporizer, it’s hard to think of his fictional counterpart as anything more than a low-rent George Michael in need of a spanking. Cassavetes works hard to keep things fresh, throwing in some choice T&A throughout and displaying a sharp ear for wigger argot, but somehow the film’s principals all remain empty ciphers, floating in a haze of middle-class privilege and smoked testes. How could this happen in our town? Who gives a fuck, dawg, pass that shit! Recommended with reservations.


Combat Shock (1986) - Buddy Giovinazzo

To describe Combat Shock as life changing would be somewhat of an understatement. Love it or hate it so much you still can’t sleep right, you’ll always remember your first time laying eyes on Baby Napalm, and if you make it to the end, you’ll certainly remember seeing this grotesque bundle of joy stuffed into an oven.

Before all this goes down, though, first timer Buddy Giovinazzo reels you in with 90 minutes of what can only be described as Vetsploitation. The film opens with Frankie running through the rice paddies of Vietnam, where he stumbles upon mutilated bodies of women and children. Taken captive by VC, he is tortured but eventually released into hospice, only to find himself reliving the events in a crusty apartment with a mutant baby, an eviction notice and overly greasy hair. Some crazy shit for sure, but give the director credit for pursuing all of it with such straight-faced determination; even the leather-clad gang m
ember with a Karate Kid headband is the real deal.

Unsurprisingly, a cast of mostly memorable caricatures inhabits the gritty world of Combat Shock. Pimps, dealers, addicts and child hookers parade before Frankie as he wanders the ghettos of Staten Island. Not content with always being at the business end of a fist, he visits the local Unemployment Office and tries reaching out to his ailing father, before ultimately turning to a career in crime he is ill suited for.

Though leaning on a certain nightmarish logic, the film flashes moments of intense realism. Simply watching Frankie put on his shoes is heartbreaking, as he hides the holes in his socks then tears a lace while tightening it. These small defeats – the meals of breadcrumbs mixed with water – not the beatings dealt by Paco, are what ultimately cause Frankie to view his life and that of his family as forfeit. All of this builds to a masochistic expression of love, overpowering in both its directness and arterial spray. Did I mention that baby in the oven? Well, Frankie goes all Terminator on it first.

Since the majority of Combat Shock is more Warriors than Jacob’s Ladder, draw parallels to Iraq at your own risk. Really, unless you’re a seasoned b-movie veteran, I’d recommend avoiding this one at all costs. Otherwise, just sit back, relax and learn how to get your fix with a coat hanger when you’re short the works.

DVD Edition: This Troma release is packed to the gills with useless features, which gives the disc much of its charm. Of note is the T.I.T quiz, which flashes soft-core porn for every correct answer and hardcore violence for every wrong one. Definitely check out the short director interview, where a cameraman is balled out for not shooting close-ups.

Worst Combat Shock IMDB message board post: Is this movie appropriate for like 12 year old kids?

What to watch for: a complete non sequitur of a director cameo that involves a Veg-O-Matic.


Honeymoon Killers (1970) - Leonard Kastle

The Honeymoon Killers is a nasty little piece of trim that cuts like a knife and stings like an electric razor to the groin. Martha Beck is an oversize Alabama nurse desperate for love and marriage. Raymond Hernandez is a smooth-talking con artist eager for a quick lay and an easy mark. Grab a pot, stir, add water and you have a nice strong mutually supportive relationship not to mention one of the largest murder sprees in American history.

You know the drill. Boy meets girl, girl falls in love, boy shows girl pictures of all girls he has wooed and married and cheated out of financial solvency before killing, girl says all right not bad bet you I can do you one better let’s go on rampage, boy says cool, boy and girl embark on a killing spree heretofore unrivaled in terms of either geographic scope or godless iniquity, girl gets jealous and turns boy in, girl and boy go to jail, boy and girl repent and write each other from separate prison cells apologizing for any harm they may have caused, girl and boy get electrocuted.

Simple, right? If only this were Mississippi Burning. Written and directed by a professional composer named Leonard Kastle following the departure of first director Martin Scorsese over budgetary concerns, the film refuses to judge its star-crossed lovers any more than a geriatric would a gallstone. If love is the answer, then ritual killing is a close second; violence is a fact of life and, as in life like in bed, sometimes it comes in spurts.

Kastle is a serious filmmaker, unafraid to track a homeless man defecating or cut away when the suggestion of an abrupt stabbing proves more powerful than a full-screen entry wound. Ray and Martha plot, kill, poison, and in one scene, hammer in heads of unsuspecting victims with glee, but the violence is never excessive, the camera never lingers too long. Rather, like a steely conductor, Kastle prefers to focus on the lovers themselves, mining tension in every glance, distrust in every spat, adding saltpeter to already lethal mix of plutononium and potassium nitrate.

Some films make you laugh. Other films just make you tired, angry, ready to hurt yourself or others. Honeymoon Killers is neither. The acting is heavy. The score is ominous to brooding. The sex, though off-screen, is implicitly hot. It’s your life. If you want to sit home all day and examine your johnson, by all means enjoy. If you want rent sick flick that literally grabs you by the shirtcuffs and tosses you across the room like a poor, confused child, then you’ve come to the right place. Highly recommended.


La Haine (1995) - Mathieu Kassovitz

Though La Haine is cited as the rare French film that tackles social issues, it is more accurately a fable about revenge bookended by political question marks. The film opens with documentary-style footage of rioting and a soundtrack that articulates what the bloodied mass cannot, yet, even with a setting ripped from the headlines, the movie betrays an incredibly personal core.

Watching the trio of Vinz, Hubert and Said is an experience slightly similar to The 400 Blows, taking us through their every small defeat in the projects and around Paris. Hubert, an ex-con and boxer in training, provides a moral center while his friend suffers oddball visions of cows and murder. He is the most intimate with the cyclical nature violence, but fails to break it despite the best of intentions. Said remains an observer, expressing his anger through bravado and occasional vandalism; he appreciates gunplay, specifically in cinema, but doesn’t have the heart for it when it’s in front of him. Even so, he ends up in an interrogation room along side Hubert, handcuffed and at the mercy of two policemen.

Despite indelible images of police brutality, it is Vinz that leaves the lasting impression. When a handgun falls into his possession he becomes burdened by the sudden and quite unexpected empowerment. As much as La Haine tries to avoid a main character, Vinz is it. Introduced through a dream
sequence, he is the troubled youth that gives us pause; namely, one that shows promise and sensitivity, but also the stubbornness to waste it in a delusional game of parity. Though he vows to kill a cop, it’s questionable whether his boasts are enough to bring action. We are relieved when he finally cannot pull the trigger - on the most deserving of targets, ironically – and equally crushed when he dies by the hand of those he seemed so eager to strike against.

This controversial ending is what gives La Haine its much-touted stature as a politically minded film. Though we follow these characters ever so closely, seeing the lessons learned and friendships burnished, every possible balance is unsettled by an accidental gunshot. Unlike the ever popular ‘twist’ of many American films, this never seems forced, but reminds us of the issues at hand and dares us to come away with an easily articul
ated answer.

DVD edition: The accompanying documentary is rather informative in discussing the production of this film, but when the director, actors and even producers get on the topic of social significance, they start overusing the word "leitmotif." Also, it’s worth seeing Kassovitz chalk his long takes up to laziness and keep a straight face.

What to watch for: The choice of wardrobe, which shows a healthy amount of anti-American sentiment. Nike and Everlast get covered up as attitudes become less violent, but ol’ Notre Dame College on the right…

Worst La Haine IMDB message board post: Who do you think shot his gun first at the end?


Spoiler Nation

Okay, time for a quick disclaimer.

Very shortly this space will start having honest to god movie reviews, the majority of which will be SPOILER HEAVY. If you don't want to know things like who lives and who dies, please don't read anything posted on this site, we won't be offended.

So now if you anonymously comment on how we spoiled The Break-Up for you, well, tough titties.


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Coming soon, you'll find movie reviews and various cinema related columns, including Eye on Spinell and Mr. Montgomery's Movie Corner. Sure, the banner might scream, "We watch better movies than you," but we're not pretentious, just bored and willing to settle for a vaguely creative way to waste our time. Okay. Maybe a little pretentious.

Check back later in the week for debut reviews of Honeymoon Killers, Spiderman 3 and La Haine.