Crime Week, Day 7: Alpha Dog

We bid adieu to Crime Week not with a particularly rare or celebrated crime film, but an underappreciated one: 2006's Alpha Dog.  Plus, during these rough times, I wanted to cover a truly worthy film that you can currently add to your collection for next to nothing.  As of this writing, the average used price of this blu on Amazon and other sites is $3.  You know, just in case you want to give yourself a break from the wallet-gouging collector's editions packed with tchotchkes and hardcover books you're never going to read.  There are quality releases of just as great films out there that won't sap your bank account.
I remember Alpha Dog kind of flopping when it came out, although looking it up on boxofficemojo, I guess it actually did reasonably well for a low budget crime flick.  I just remember people, both critically and in my real life, being very dismissive of it, treating it as a dumb, juvenile piece of trashy exploitation.  It took extra lumps because, while it wasn't quite his first role, this was pre-Social Network and people were still dubious of Justin Timberlake as a potentially credible actor.  And he was surrounded by talented up and comers who were collectively easily written off as MTV bait.  It doesn't help that writer/ director Nick Cassavetes has a shaky track record either.

But if you get past all the overreactions and preconceptions, you find a really great story, expertly told.  I believe it's actually Cassavetes' greatest work - a poignant tragedy about the under-supervised youths of Hollywood getting in over the heads playing at being gangsters.  When they kidnap someone's younger brother over a drug debt, they realize there's no turning back and the only way out they see is to kill the kid, played with real soul by Anton Yelchin.  It's heart-breaking as he doesn't even try to escape, feeling like he's just hanging out and partying with his older brother's friends, when the viewer knows right from the beginning where this is all headed.  This is a very different role for Bruce Willis and an impressive performance from Sharon Stone, although the filmmakers make an unfortunate choice for her at the very end of the film, which I won't spoil here, but I'll just say it takes you out of the picture in a way they couldn't have wanted.
And admittedly, that's not the only mistake.  This film gets it right 98% of the time, really nailing its portrayal of young adults too immature to see how they're misdirecting their lives trying to emulate pop culture portrayals of glorified crime.  They're young, they're rich, they're dumb and their parents are complicit.  It's an embarrassing phase of wasted privilege they would've all grown out of eventually, but unfortunately for them, it was suddenly too late.  Every once in a while, however, the filmmakers themselves seem to fall under the same spell their characters do, and the movie occasionally lapses into trite genre fare.  Like, at one point an exasperated character exclaims "fuck me," and then it hard cuts to two of the characters having a very porno-like sex scene, and you say to yourself, har har, I get it; that transition gag was written by a thirteen year-old boy.  Or for another example, there's a fight scene between some drunken teens in a house-party, where they're suddenly doing grossly over-choreographed flying kicks and crap, allowing the stunt guys to indulge their Jackie Chan fantasies.  And Harry Dean Stanton, who we all love, feels like he's acting in a different movie than everybody else.  So yeah, there are imperfections, but luckily they're not too overwhelming and you get past them relatively early in the film.  You might be looking askance at the screen with your arms crossed at the beginning of this picture, but once you get into the second act, the film really finds its groove and you'll be pulled into some genuinely moving drama.
In 2007, Universal issued Alpha Dog as a new release on DVD in both Full Screen and Widescreen versions.  Remember when that was common, or have you already blocked those dark times out?  Anyway, it didn't come out on blu right away, because Universal bet on HD DVD.  So that was its only HD release for a while.  But eventually 2010 rolled around and the format wars ended with a definitive victor, so they finally gave Alpha Dog a proper blu-ray release, as a 2-disc combo pack with the Widescreen DVD.  Later, the same blu-ray disc was also included in a 2011 double-disc set with the remake of Assault On Precinct 13, which seems like a pretty arbitrary pairing, but okay.
1) 2007 Universal widescreen DVD; 2) 2007 Universal full screen DVD;
3) 2010 Universal widescreen DVD; 4) 2010 Universal BD.
2010 Universal widescreen DVD left; 2010 Universal BD right.
To start with, all the widescreen editions are in 2.35:1, although the blu-ray zooms out to reveal a couple extra pixels worth around the edges.  The Full screen version, meanwhile, bears a shocking comparison to the anamorphic versions in 1.33:1, chopping off the sides so much, entire characters are dropped out of frame.  It is a full pan and scan job, though, so you'll eventually get to see everybody important on screen.  And in terms of clarity, it's a surprisingly strong difference, and detail that was lost in a soft haze on the DVD comes alive on the blu.  Looking at the grain (which is completely washed away on the DVD), this is no UHD, but it's much more authentically captured and filmic than I expected.  This is not another Monster situation with an old transfer screaming for another scan; it holds up quite well.

All of the above versions include the same 5.1 mix, plus a French dub, also in 5.1, with English, Spanish and French subs.  The only difference is that the English track is in DTS-HD on the blu, though the French track is the same lossy mix as the DVDs.
Extras are the same across the board: a single eleven minute featurette with behind-the-scenes footage and soundbites from Cassavetes and the cast.  It's a little better than your average promo featurette, but just barely.  At eleven minutes, you just can't go in-depth.  It's better than nothing, and it's worth watching if you own the disc (which, again, is more than you can say for some of those promo pieces), but it's disappointing in terms of exploring the film and especially in terms of information about the real crime.  Every time I've watched this with someone, we've immediately googled the real crime to find out what happened to the last character - something the DVD would've been ideally suited to have the answer to.  Strictly speaking, there is an in-menu text thing with brief quotes from the real-life witnesses, but it's not even a video extra at all.
So yeah, extras are the weak point here.  The current blu's a fine edition of the film itself; it's just not the special edition one would hope for.  At this point, though, I don't think we're going to do any better than that tacked-on Precinct 13 remake.  On the other hand, Alpha Dog is real cheap and easily found anywhere; you can't say it isn't a fine deal for the price.  And most importantly, it's a great movie.

Crime Week, Day 6: Party Monster

I used to be annoyed that this next one wasn't available on blu-ray, because 2003's Party Monster is a terrific little crime film that never quite got the praise it deserved.  I'd even occasionally search around in other regions to see if a decent import version hadn't flown under my radar.  But then I finally took a minute to consider when this was shot, looked into it and realized, of course, this was shot on standard def video, so like 24 Hour Party People, it wouldn't stand to look much better on BD anyway.  Of course, MVD still put that out, so maybe it will still happen.  But I've learned to stop worrying and love the DVD.

Oh, and P.S.!  That reminds me, I've just updated my 24 Hour Party People coverage to include MVD's blu-ray today, so you can go and see what I'm referring to for yourself.
Party Monster tells the story of - including the vicious murder by - semi-celebrity party promoter Michael Alig and his NYC club kids scene.  This is written, produced and directed by the team of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato.  It's the first, and to date only, feature film by the duo with a decades long history of documentaries.  Some of their best known work includes The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Inside Deep Throat.  I can't say these guys rank alongside the truly great documentary filmmakers, per se, but they're certainly prolific.  As their first feature, it may be a little rough around the edges... it relies too heavily extreme close-ups and you can feel them struggling to mask budget limitations.  But given their history covering the scene, and perhaps just the generally tacky, salacious themes shared by the real events and the filmmakers' body of work (they're also the Shock Video guys, if you remember HBO's weird experiment with modern mondo trash in the 90s and 00s), they feel like the right guys to tell this story, and in the end, I think they did it just right.
Admittedly, this is a movie you have to put some faith in.  I've spoken to a number of people who were immediately put off by the performances in the opening and never made it, past, say 30 minutes in, and I totally get that.  The film starts with Culkin and Green both breaking the fourth wall to argue who this film is really meant to be about.  They perform with very cartoonishly fey artifices, and the whole thing can feel very cringe, if not downright homophobic.  But if you went in having seen the doc, you'd know the real people spoke that same way; putting on those over-the-top personas went with the costumes and drugs as part of their extreme desperation to escape their reality, which is exactly what Culkin and Green have captured.  And if you stick with it to the end, the actors definitely dig down to the humanity and heart of their characters.  Except for Dylan McDermott.  We've just seen him kick ass in Wonderland, but now he just looks woefully miscast, like he wandered in off the set of Access Hollywood.  But where McDermott awkwardly fails to capture the spirit (let alone the look) of his real-life counterpart, the rest of Party Monster's supporting cast knocks it out of the park, including wonderful turns by Chloë Sevigny, Natasha Lyonne, Wilson Cruz (Star Trek, My So Called Life) and even Marilyn Manson; and you only wish they all could have more screen time.
2004 Fox DVD fullscreen side top; 2004 Fox DVD widescreen side bottom.
Party Monster's a single-sided disc, but that hasn't stopped Fox from including both fullscreen (1.33:1) and widescreen (1.83:1) versions.  It's a bit of your standard compromise, where the fullscreen opens the mattes up, revealing more vertically.  But it still definitely takes large chunks off the sides and spoils the composition.

Now, I questioned earlier if the standard def video would even look any better on blu, but I do wonder if a new version could at least fix this interlacing.  It very well might be baked into the footage, but I'm not sure that it isn't just a part of this particular transfer.  (shrug)  Who knows?  Either way, it's soft and low-fi, even by DVD standards.  The colors are clearly intentionally over-saturated as a design choice, but the range still seems pretty crushed, which again is probably an issue with the original footage rather than the DVD transfer.  I'd certainly be curious to see if an HD restoration could do anything for it, but I suspect this is about as good as it'll ever get.

Party Monster includes a robust Dolby Digital 2.0 track that serves the music and dialogue well, as well as an additional Spanish dub.  Fox also includes optional English subtitle captions.
Extras ain't bad.  We mostly get a bunch of short stuff.  Cast interviews include most of the main players, but are all really short, EPK pieces, ranging from four minutes to thirty seconds.  There's nine minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, a nine minute promo featurette, a four and a half minute interview with Alig, which seems to be an outtake from the 1998 documentary and the trailer.  All of these short things are nice to have, and I'd definitely rather they be included than not, but they also still leave you hungry.  The most filling extra is the audio commentary by Bailey and Barbato that provides a lot of information both on the film and the club scene that inspired it.
One thing you really want to see in the extras of these crime films is coverage of the real incident, and while the Fox DVD does talk about briefly, it definitely falls short.  So thankfully, an indie label called Picture This released the 1998 Party Monster documentary - or "SHOCKUMENTARY" - on DVD in 2003, to compliment the feature film.  This is the original film Bailey and Barbato made for HBO that led to the feature in the first place.  It's only about an hour long, but talks to everybody, even Alig in prison, and also is full of vintage footage showing the famous parties, home videos and news footage to really paint a complete picture.  If you don't have any personal involvement in the club stuff, the first half can move a little slow.  It's a bunch of former kids eager to share their memories of each other like who regularly wore what costumes, etc.  But once the film gets to where things started to slip, it gets fascinating - not to mention just a fun way to compare all of the actors with their real-life counterparts - and becomes the perfect compliment to the feature film.
2003 US Picture This DVD.
This Party Monster is only in fullscreen, at 1.31:1, which is surely its OAR as a made-for-TV movie.  This was also shot on digital and has a similar color palette, though it's naturally packed with more, lower quality, vintage footage as you'd expect from a doc.  Unfortunately, it's interlaced, too.  That tends to go hand-in-hand with TV material, though, and as little hope I hold out for a BD restoration of the feature film, I have far less for this getting one.  So there's nothing to do but embrace whatever flaws we find.

Audio is just a basic, but clean, stereo track.  There are no subtitles.
Extras on this doc are pretty rewarding, too.  Maybe even moreso than Fox's DVD.  First off, we get an audio commentary by James St. James (Seth Green's character).  As you can imagine, it's not ideal.  He spends a lot of the time making catty comments about the outfits people are wearing and other silliness, but he also has some unique insights and overall it's an energetic, interesting listen even if it's a mess that you have to sift through.  There's a brief featurette on Clara the Chicken, one of the kids known for wearing a chicken mascot costume and original footage used to advertise and play in the clubs.  There are trailers for both the doc and the feature and a bunch of bonus trailers.  But most notably is another hour-long 1994 documentary called Nelson Sullivan's World of Wonder, also produced and directed by Barton and Bailey, which consists entirely of Sullivan filming himself, video diary style, and his downtown NY neighbors.  This includes an extended visit to the apartment of Christine, Marilyn Manson's character from the film, and famous LGBTQ icons like Quentin Crisp and RuPaul.  A lot of footage in 1998's Party Monster was shot by Sullivan, too, so it's great that this film found a home here, too.
So yeah, if a blu-ray ever happens, I'll spring for it and see if it helps at all.  But it probably won't, so it's a moot point.  But that's alright.  I've stopped working myself up over what would be little more than a side-grade.  The DVDs are just fine.

Crime Week, Day 5: The Bling Ring

Let's lighten up Crime Week a little bit!  After all a true crime doesn't have to be a shocking, gut-wrenching murder.  Breaking and entering's a crime, robbery's a crime... So how about an excellent mediation on one of society's most famous cases of both with 2013's Bling Ring, based on the real string of Hollywood Hills Burglaries from 2008 to 2009.  Now, there were actually two movies about the so-called Bling Ring, both entitled The Bling Ring.  The first, a 2011 Lifetime movie, wasn't unwatchable or anything.  Jennifer Grey is the mom and it's available on DVD, too.  But, of course, this post is for the good one, by Sofia Coppola.
Emma Watson received and proved worthy of the spotlight here in one of her first post-Harry Potter films, although it's the far less touted Israel Broussard (of the Happy Death Day movies) who really walks away with this film in the end, capturing the sincere sweetness behind the youths.  If you don't already know, the bling ring was a crew of fame-obsessed Hollywood high schoolers ("I just have to graduate so I can go to the Institute of Fashion & Design?  That's where all the Hills girls went."  "Cool.  And then intern at Teen Vogue?"  "Totes.  And then have my own line and fragrance, host my own show."  "Yeah.  I'd like to have my own lifestyle."  "Definitely.") who figure out that they can find celebrities' homes and schedules online, and that a lot of them were probably naive enough to leave their doors unlocked.  Thus began a string of burglaries that went unsolved, and often unnoticed, for over a year, despite zero cunning or care being put into getting away with it, even posting selfies of themselves in their victims homes and clothes.  Pretty vacant stars like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom and Megan Fox wound up unwittingly funding equally vapid lifestyles of their underage neighbors.
The film somewhat clumsily straddles the line between an insightful examination of a damaged community unable to care for its children and a parody of celebrity culture.  Broussard is definitely starring in the former while Watson stars in the latter.  But that's not necessarily a bad thing.  It's the collision of these two dimensions that created the bling ring, and understanding their world means being able to navigate both.  And Coppola's specialty is creating a poetic ecosystem with the camera, so everything from the pop soundtrack cues to the entertainment news footage all wind up mixing together into one, authentically diseased world we can inhabit with the characters.  We also get a rare non-Apatow casting of Leslie Mann (in the Jennifer Grey role) and cameos from Paris Hilton and Coppola favorite Kirsten Dunst as themselves.  Characters narrate to an off-camera interviewer verbatim statements the real kids were quoted as saying in the famous Vanity Fair article that this film is directly based on, and Paris even allowed Coppola to film in her house, further swirling the fiction with the non, resulting in a more vibrant, complicated art piece than any single tact could have produced on its own.
The Bling Ring's history on home video ain't complicated.  Lions Gate released it as separate DVD and blu-ray releases in the Fall of 2013, and mirroring editions were released in most other regions around the world at the same time.  The only noteworthy point about that is that several of the foreign editions, especially the German editions, include a few additional brief extras, all taken from promo materials, so if you're a super hardcore fan, you might want to look into importing.  But all the extras of substance are on the US discs and all the transfers are made from the same DCP.
1) 2013 Lions Gate US DVD; 2) 2013 Lions Gate US BD.
Both discs are theoretically matted to 1.85:1, though the DVD's actually more like 1.83:1.  Both images contain exactly the same information, however, with the difference accounted for by a slight vertical stretching of the DVD.  Otherwise, like I said, it's all taken from the same DCP, so the colors and everything are exactly the same.  Of course the BD is higher resolution so it's sharper and resolves fine detail more accurately.  This film was shot digitally, so we can't look to film grain to tell us anything; but you don't need an eagle eye to see how much sharper the kids' faces are in the second set of shots, for example.  Apart from that very minor stretching on the DVD, it's exactly what you'd expect from the same transfer being used on a DVD and BD.

Things are just as predictable (happily, most surprises in this area tend to be unwanted) in the audio department, too.  Both discs feature the film's original 5.1 mix, in DTS-HD on the blu, with optional English and Spanish subtitles.  The only slight surprise is that the BD offers an extra, third set of subtitles, giving us both English and English SDH, whereas the DVD offers just the basic English.
The extras aren't too dense, but they're nice.  There's a 23-minute 'making of' documentary, but it's more than your standard promo EPK piece.  It's one of the more raw, revealing behind-the-scenes pieces we've come to find with a number of Coppola's films.  Then there's another documentary of almost the same length, that goes into the real story, giving you footage of the real ring members, actual security footage, interviews, etc.  When it comes to these true crime films on disc, you really want a piece like this to compare the reality to the dramatization you just watched, and this fills that need.  But if you want to go even further, the final feature is an exclusive interview with Paris Hilton, where she talks about her experience and takes us on a little tour through her home/ the crime scene, answering questions along the way ("those pillows were a gift from a girlfriend").  Finally we get the trailer and a bunch of "bonus" trailers that play on start-up.  Both editions also come in an attractive slipcover.
So this is an easy one.  A widely distributed theatrical film from the time when physical media was stronger?  If this already isn't in your collection, you can pick it up anytime, cheap and convenient.  And short of Criterion creating more extras because they've suddenly decided this is essential to their collection, the current release really leaves you wanting for nothing.  And this is such an endlessly rewatchable film, it would just be silly not to have it.

Crime Week, Day 4: Auto Focus

While we're all in Corona Virus lockdown, let's cheer ourselves up with another film about a real, terrible murder.  Yes, Crime Week continues with Paul Schrader's Auto Focus, the 2002 drama that tells the story of Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane, who was found bludgeoned to death in his own bed.  You see, besides being a happily married, affable sitcom star, he'd been living a double-life as a swinger and pornographer; and for some reason, audiences didn't rush out in droves to see this in theaters.
Admittedly, I can't blame audiences for giving this one a miss.  It came at a time when star Greg Kinnear was painfully overexposed in a seemingly endless string of bad movies like Mystery Men, that movie where Robert DeNiro cloned his son, the one where he's a beaming mailman who answers kids' letters to Santa Claus, a comedy where he played conjoined twins with Matt Damon and a remake of The Bad News Bears.  And I can't imagine there was much demand for film about Bob Crane, who hadn't really had a hit since 1971, over thirty years later... especially when the advertising was centered around Kinnear in the Hogan's jacket mugging at passersby like a dozen of his other film posters.  I was reluctant to watch it myself until I was left alone with the DVD and little other choice several years after it had come and gone.
But I'm thankful I did.  If it had been introduced as an exploration of human nature and a notorious, unsolved Hollywood true crime by the man behind Taxi Driver and Blue Collar rather than a bland, lighthearted biopic of an old 60's star I barely remembered, I and I think many others, would've jumped on this.  Kinnear's persona plays perfectly into the role for the first half of the film, but by the second half we learn he can really sink into a challenging part, holding his own against Willem Dafoe, who himself goes for a subtler, more humanistic approach than some of the more gonzo performances other directors ask of him.  From the cast to the art design and Angelo Badalamenti's (Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive) score, this film is surprisingly successful in all departments.  Apart from Schrader's unfortunate decision to create a handful of exterior shots digitally - which end up looking distractingly like a video game cutscene - this could almost be a perfect film.  It's certainly one of Schrader's top masterpieces.
Sony released Auto Focus on DVD as a pretty nice special edition.  Anamorphic widescreen up to Sony's usually high standards and a heap of great extras, which we'll detail below.  Just one problem.  The film, as shot, is NC-17, so they edited the film for theatrical and home video release in the US.  They didn't actually cut anything out, but they pixelated a couple shots, and removed some frames in one, giving it an odd, stop motion feel.  But only in the US.  So if you import this from pretty much any other region in the world, you'll get an uncensored version.  And Sony included the complete extras package on all those other import versions, so it's an easy fix, right?  Get any copy except the US DVD.  But in 2018, Auto Focus debuted on blu-ray from Twilight Time.  It's a genuine upgrade, but I guess Sony was still worried about the hassle of an NC-17 transfer in the US, because yup, the blu is censored, too.  That's annoying, and it's compounded by the fact that there are no foreign blu-rays of this film.  So we all have to choose between HD and uncut.
1) 2003 US Sony DVD; 2) 2018 US Twilight Time BD.
As you can see up top, the DVD is slightly windowboxed to 1.83:1,  while the blu-ray is even more slightly pillarboxed, but not enough to change the ratio from 1.78:1.  Both discs claim to be 1.85:1 on the back of their cases, but we're surely we're used to that popular mistake by now.  Anyway, that means the blu reveals just a tiny bit more information along the top and bottom than the DVD.  The matching colors, brightness, etc, shows us that despite the nice boost in clarity over the DVD, this is the same root master being used for both discs.  So despite being a much newer blu-ray than our previous few crime flicks, the master's just as old.  But Sony does good preservation work, and you can see how much more natural the film grain is captured here than on, say, Monster.  In brief, this is a better blu less in need of a new scan and holds up rather nicely.  Sure, I'd love to see another restoration for UHD someday, but for 1080p, this is quite satisfactory.

As to the audio, the DVD gives us the English 5.1 mix and a French 5.1 dub, with optional English and French subtitles.  The blu-ray dumps the French stuff, but bumps the 5.1 up to lossless DTS-HD and also includes a second 2.0 mix, also in DTS-HD.  And yes, it still has the English subs.
Now, Twilight Time didn't come up with any extras except for their usual isolated music track (in DTS-HD 5.1) and a booklet with notes by Julie Kirgo.  But fortunately, the DVD was pretty packed with great content, and Twilight Time hung onto it all, so we're not left wanting for much.  We get three audio commentaries.  The first, by Paul Schrader, gives the best overall coverage, talking about the real case, creative decisions made during the process, facts about the filming and so on.  The second is by Kinnear and Dafoe, and it's the lightest of the three.  They do provide so unique insights and bits of backstory, but this is more of just a casual chat, with Dafoe often lapsing into abject silence, leaving Kinnear to carry most of the weight on his own.  Finally, the third, by the two producers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, as well as original screenwriter Michael Gerbosi, is only an hour long (apparently they were told any longer would've maxed out the available space on the DVD disc).  But they do a great job of telling different stories and explaining things about the project before Schrader got on board, and therefore not to be found in the other extras.  The relationship between them, particularly the pair of Karaszewski and Gerbosi, is also so clearly contentious (not least because Schrader was allowed to make drastic changes to Gerbosi's material) that it's also a fascinating listen just to hear all the drama bubbling up between the lines.  I think it would've come to literal blows had they been allowed that second hour.

And that's not all.  There are several deleted scenes, which also have optional commentary by Schrader.  And there's a lengthy, almost hour long documentary about the real case, which interviews police who investigated the crime, the DA, Crane's children and Carpenter's widow.  It's quite thorough and will probably answer every question Auto Focus might've raised for you apart from who, definitively did it (although both films clearly share a very strong opinion).  Finally, there's your standard promotional featurette and two trailers.
So it's another compromised situation leaving us all with a decision we shouldn't have to make.  For myself, the benefits of the HD image outweigh the very brief instances of visual censorship.  But I can't deny those moments are distracting when they appear.  A nice European blu would solve this problem nicely, but as things stand, I can live with the Twilight Time release.