Dog Has Its Day

Of the dozens of definite-interest films playing at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival (which I haven’t even begun to try and summarize), Nick Cassevetes’ Alpha Dog has easily gotten the most press…and yet it’s showing at the very end of the fes- tival (Friday, 1.27 at the Eccles, and Saturday, 1.28, at Prospector Square) when most of the hot-and-happening crowd will be gone.
I have it on very good authority that it’s worth sticking around for. Alpha Dog isn’t a great film but it’s quite provocative and even agitating (in a good way). It’s certainly thought-provoking, and it boasts more than a few live-wire performances, including a serious stand-out one by Justin Timberlake.

Shawn Hatosy, Emile Hirsch, Harry Dean Stanton, Bruce Willis, Olivia Wilde and Justin Timberlake in Alpha Dog.

Directed and written by Cassevetes, Alpha Dog is more than a cautionary tale about amoral kids gone wild. It’s a condemnation of liberal anything-goes values, of absentee parents, of a society lacking in moral fibre. In short, it’s a film that social conservatives will point to and say, “See? This is what we’re trying to prevent.” And it’ll be hard to argue with them.
The impression is that Dog has fashioned its own particular vibe and attitude, but it will certainly be seen as following in the tradition of Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge, Jack Aaron Estes’ Mean Creek and Larry Clark’s Bully.
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The film also stars Shawn Hatosy, Harry Dean Stanton, a bewigged Bruce Willis, Olivia Wilde, Sharon Stone, Dominique Swain and Ben Foster (another provider of an exceptional performance).
Based on a true story that happened about six years ago, Dog is about a 20 year-old known as Jesse James Hollywood (called Johnny Truelove in the movie, and portrayed by Lords of Dogtown‘s Emile Hirsch), a pot dealer from a well-to-do San Fernando Valley suburb who obviously saw himself as a minor-league Tony Montana.
This plus the general lower-end-of-the-gene-pool idiocy that is not unknown to suburban youth culture led to Jimmy making a fatal error: he and some pals kidnapped the 15 year-old younger brother of a guy who owed him $1200 as a way of applying pressure, and when he later realized he and his cronies would be looking at big-time jail terms he told a flunkie to kill the boy (Nicholas Markowitz in actuality– called Zack Mazursky in the film and played by Anton Yelchin) to keep him from testifying.

Justin Timberlake

When the boy’s body was found Jimmy eventually left the country and, with his father’s help, wound up living incognito in Brazil. But last March he was punched by Interpol agents and brought back to the U.S. to face murder charges.
The reason Alpha Dog has been getting a lot of press (in a David Halbfinger story that ran today in the New York Times and one that Lou Lumenick ran in the on 1.13) is because Cassavetes and the film’s distributor, New Line Cinema, are caught up in a legal tangle over a threatened injunction that could conceivably prevent Alpha Dog from being released on 2.24.06, as New Line is planning.
The beef is from Hollywood’s attorney James Blatt, who’s saying that prosecuting attorney Rod Zonen was guilty of misconduct by providing inside information about the murder case to Cassevetes during the film’s preparation phase. Blatt’s argu- ment is that the release of this information in a dramatic fashion in Alpha Dog will prejudice matters against his client.
Cassevetes was subpoenaed by Blatt last summer as part of an attempt to have Zonen removed from the case for giving Cassavetes access to nonpublic records. The ploy failed. Two months ago a judge ordered Cassavetes’s researcher, Michael Mehas, who is writing a book about the case, to turn over notes and tapes from his interviews to the defense. Blatt is now threatening to seek an injunction against the release of Alpha Dog.
I suspect Blatt is mainly grandstanding and that Alpha Dog will probably open as planned, but ahead-of-the-curve types will probably want to see it at Sundance just to play it safe.

Emile Hisch

Sundance honcho Geoff Gilmore declares in the program notes that Cassavetes’ film “captures the driving energy and sordid anomie of contemporary youth culture,” adding that it end “in a tragedy that would be shocking if we weren’t so aware of the kind of world we live in, a place with kids who live without mores, parents who don’t have a clue, and ongoing conflict between the lingering inno- cence of youth and moral disintegration and dissolution.”
Being a father of a 17 and a 16 year-old, this Cassevetes quote in the Times piece about absentee-parenting struck home:
“I’m guilty of it — of being too busy with your everyday life to properly spend enough time with your children to figure out what’s going on with them.
“You can check in, and you say, ‘Are you all right?’ But it’s not like being on a farm or spending a lot of time in the house. We all live really global, Internetty lives. Kids have more power than they did before. They have cars, they can get around, they have dough, and there’s always some person that’s got something going on that can get everybody killed.”

Vintage Art

Globe Finals

There were no big surprises at the Golden Globes last night, and the big after-party on the roof of the Beverly Hilton…I’m not too sure I can do this right now. It’s 12:25 a.m. and I’m whipped, partly because I couldn’t muster the discipline to leave the after-party sooner but I had a good time so the hell with it.
I ran into and had brief chit-chats with Heath Ledger, Rachel Weisz, Walk the Line director-co-writer James Mangold and producer Cathy Konrad, Ang Lee, New York Times “Carpetbagger” blogger David Carr, Brokeback Mountain producer James Schamus and…

Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams at Focus Features/Universal/NBC post-Golden Globes party — Monday, 1.16.06, 8:15 pm.

I don’t know why I’m dropping names like this. I mean, it’s pathetic. I suppose there’s something a bit more vital about roaming around and chatting people up and taking snaps than sitting around and nibbling food and watching a TV screen, but…
Walk the Line is looking heavily fortified for the Oscars with three Globes in a knapsack — Best Picture (Musical/Comedy), Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy (Joaquin Phoenix) and Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy (Reese Witherspoon) …plus the domestic box-office is set to pass the $100 million mark this weekend.
And if Brokeback Mountain was looking like a hot Oscar contender before, it’s looking even stronger now with four Golden Globe wins — Best Picture, Best Director (Ang Lee), Best Adapted Screenplay (Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana) and Best Song.
I never even knew there was a Brokeback Mountain song until last night. It’s called “A Love That Will Never Grow Old” (music by Gustavo Santaolalla, lyrics by B. Taupin, sung by Emmylou Harris), and is heard playing rather faintly on the radio when Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) is driving in his pickup after after visiting Ennis in Wyoming just after the divorce. (Because it’s barely in the film, I’m told it’s ineligible for an Oscar nomination.)
Hooray for Capote‘s Philip Seymour Hoffman winning the Best Actor (Drama) award (although I’m still hoping for a tie between Hoffman and Heath Ledger on Oscar night), and George Clooney nabbing the Best Supporting Actor trophy for his work in Syriana.

Walk the Line director and cowriter James Mangold, producer Cathy Konrad — Monday, 1.16.06, 9:10 pm.

Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee — Monday, 1.16.06, 9:20 pm.

V for Vendetta star Natalie Portman (foreground), Brokeback Mountain producer James Schamus (far left) — 1.16.06, 9:10 pm.

It was a pleasant evening all around. Maybe a little too pleasant? I have this memory of the Globes being a little looser and more raucous than the Oscars, but the only one indulging in oh-my-God behavior was E! red-carpet guy Isaac Mizrahi with his boob-cupping routines.
At the podium it was all small stuff…Sandra Oh, winner of the Best Supporting TV Actress award for Grey’s Anatomy, having trouble making it up to the stage, George Clooney telling that Jack Abramoff jack-off joke, and Dennis Quaid saying something about the import of Brokeback Mountain rhyming with “chick flick.” I think he meant “dick flick”…witty!
Drew Barrymore and Mariah Carey got the biggest “whoa” responses from the crowd at the Weinstein Co. viewing party at Trader Vic’s — Barrymore because of her green see-through dress and Carey because she’s moving closer and closer to Aretha Franklin dimensions.
And we have to wait until March 5th for the Oscars? Seven weeks minus two days?

Brokeback Mountain producer James Schamus, Universal Pictures honcho Ron Meyer — Monday, 1.16.06, 8:55 pm.

The Constant Gardener costar and Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe winner Rachel Weisz (who’s about five months pregnant) — 1.16.06, 8:20 pm.

There were plenty of GG nominations but no awards for Good Night, and Good Luck, Match Point, Crash and Mrs. Henderson Presents. Does this indicate anything? Naah. Well, maybe.
After making the rounds at the Focus Features party on the roof for maybe 40 or 50 minutes, I thought it might be time to head over to the 20th Century Fox/Walk the Line party, but as I made my way out the door I realized the Fox party guests — Line‘s director-co-writer Jim Mangold and producer Kathy Konrad, Fox Newscorp chief Rupert Murdoch, et. al. — had bailed and decided to join the Universal throng.
I’m just sorry I didn’t run into Capote‘s director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman, who were saluted by Hoffman during his Golden Globe acceptance speech and described as sitting “waay back in the corner.” Capote has brought in roughly $12.5 million domestically so far — I trust Hoffman’s win and the coming nominations will boost business considerably.
Winners — Best Picture (Drama): Brokeback Mountain. Best Director: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain. Best Actor, Drama: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote . Best Picture, Musical/Comedy: Walk the Line. Best Actor, Musical/Comedy: Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line. Best Actress, Musical/Comedy: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line.
More Winners — Best Actress, Drama: Felicity Huffman, Transamerica. Best Screenplay: Brokeback Mountain (Larry McMurty, Diana Ossana). Best Original Score: John Williams, Memoirs Of A Geisha. Best Foreign Language Film: Paradise Now.

Memoirs of a Geisha star Ziyi Zhang.

Amber Tamblyn, star of Stephanie Daley, a 2006 Sundance Film Festival Dramatic Competition selection that’s showing next weekend. Amber and I shared a table at the Weinstein Co. viewing party at Trader Vic’s, adjacent to the Beverly Hilton.

N.Y. Times “Carpetbagger” Oscar blogger David Carr

Steve Carell, winner of Best Actor (Musical/Comedy) in a TV series in The Office, and Geisha star Ziyi Zhang.

Bed of roses inside seating arangement at Focus Features after-party.

I think I get the meaning of this. I mean, I think it was meant to be received as (a) a friendly wink or (b) a form of social criticism of some kind in a Diane Arbus vein. Either way it’s cool.

London Daily Mail columnist Baz Bamigboye, Fox 411 columnist Roger Friedman.

Crash Bash

Lionsgate threw a big crowded pre-Golden Globes party at Morton’s last night (Saturday, 1.14). Some Crash stars (Matt Dillon, Terrence Howard, director-writer Paul Haggis, screenwriter Bobby Moresco) attended along with several journalists, Lions Gate brass (Jon Feltheimer, Tom Ortenberg) and staffers, and a lot of corporate promotional partners milling about with their wives and girlfriends.

Crash star and Golden Glove nominee Matt Dillon, manager-producer Victoria Wisdom at Lions Gate soiree at Morton’s — Saturday, 1.14.06, 9:25 pm.

Crash star Terrence Howard, Lion’s Gate CEO Jon Feltheimer

The party was about celebrating the work of Haggis and Moresco, whose Crash screenplay is GG-nominated, as well as Dillon, who’s been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe, plus the very hot Howard (distinguished in ’05 not just for his Crash performance but his superb rendering of a Memphis pimp going through a midlife crisis in Hustle & Flow).
But it was mainly about turning up the Crash flame in hopes of attracting a bit more Academy enthusiasm and maybe locking down a Best Picture Oscar nomination, plus (one would hope) noms for Haggis, Moresco, Dillon, et. al.
The vibe was friendly, amiable…an aura of flush satisfaction and anticipation and Pinot Grigio frivolity…dampened only slightly by a fire marshall blocking the door at one point and stranding a few latecomers on the sidewalk.

The Envelope “Styles & Scenes” correspondent Elizabeth Snead, Slate Kausfiles columnist Mickey Kaus, Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post.

Crash director and co-screenwriter Paul Haggis, co-screenwriter Bobby Moresco — Saturday, 1.14.06, 9:10 pm.

I wanted to run over and catch a Writers Guild interview between Brokeback Moun- tain screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and Oscar gadfly/film critic Pete Hammond, but I flaked.
And so concludes the least substantial Hollywood Elsewhere piece I’ve ever written…but I had fun and I don’t care. Working 15-hour days seven days a week requires an occasional kick-back or you’ll go catatonic.

Down To It

I finally saw Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone last night and got the wisdom of what almost every deep-focus movie journalist and critic has been saying since it (barely) opened in New York and Los Angeles nearly six weeks ago, which is that it’s grimly real but has something that doesn’t let up.
This is a profoundly honed and life-like low-budgeter about a mom with two kids coping with drug addiction, and Vera Farmiga, who plays this withered young woman like she’s not playing her at all, is the absolute shit.

Vera Farmiga, Hugh Dillon after last night’s screening of Down to the Bone at Laemmle’s Music Hall — 1.12.06, 9:50 pm.

Farmiga doesn’t perform — she becomes and burns through. She has the saddest eyes and the posture of a Siberian salt-mine worker, and she makes you feel the empty-soul fatigue of working a job at a supermarket check-out counter while nur- sing a serious cocaine habit and…Christ, stealing birthday money from her son in order to score, and then getting fired after she cleans up because the coke made her work faster.
This is Anna Magnani in Open City reborn and time-tripped into something worse than mere poverty.
I’ve been told Down to the Bone is the main reason Farmiga landed major roles in Anthony Minghella’s upcoming Breaking and Entering and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed…you can see why in a heartbeat.
Newsweek‘s David Ansen called Farmiga’s Down to the Bone performance a “reve- lation” and listed her performance among the best of the year, and of course the L.A. Film Critics voted her their ’05 Best Actress award. It was these responses that stirred me from slumber and led to last night’s wake-up.
I am so late-to-the-party on this one I don’t want to talk about it. But I am and I’m sorry, and I wish I’d been able to say this before: this is a moderately weak year for female performances, and there’s no question that Farmiga’s performance in this bleak but mesmerizing film is absolutely gold standard.

Farmiga with Jasper Daniels (playing her older son) in Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone

If we lived in a world that singled out the real jewels in the rough and paid less attention to industry hype and herd-mentality thinking, Vera Farmiga would right now be breathing down Reese Witherspoon’s neck.
But of course we don’t and she’s not, and Farmiga, giving it one last shot and laying it on the line, personally arranged for last night’s Down to the Bone screen- ing at Laemmle’s Music Hall (and for guys like me to be invited)…and good for her. And cheers to Adrien Brody, an old friend of Farmiga’s (they co-starred in an ’02 film called Dummy) who dropped by to lend support.
My apologies to publicist Steven Zeller, who tried to get me to see Down to the Bone early last fall. And a respectful tip of the hat to Farmiga’s ICM agent Chris Matthews, who also dropped by to show support and cheer things along.
And hold on…who’s this Hugh Dillon guy? He gives an assured, quietly sexy performance as Farmiga’s drug-counsellor boyfriend who holds her hand and caresses her cheek as they both spiral downward in the third act. Damned if he isn’t another reason for me to feel like a dilletante columnist.

Adrien Brody, Farmiga, Dillon — Thursday, 1.12.06, 9:52 pm.

Dillon is one of those steady souls who comes into a scene and looks the lead actress right in the eye in an easy, friendly way and says it plain and true (like he does in his first scene with Farmiga) and right away you’re saying to yourself, “This guy’s cool…I trust him.”
Dillon should be happening. He should be the star of a TV cop show… something. He’s got that pale-faced Irish hard-guy thing…he should have been cast as a cop or a wise guy in The Departed.
Don’t mention my having missed Down to the Bone at Sundance ’04 — I’m having enough trouble coping as it is. Just take my word and rent it when it comes out on DVD, which will probably happen over the next four to six months.
I told Dillon after the screening that the movie has a unique tension that comes from pulling you in opposite directions. You want his and Vera’s characters to straighten up and fly right and your heart sinks when they fall off the wagon, but at the same time the bleakness of their lives and surroundings seems so futile and spiritually draining that you can understand the appeal of an occasional snort.