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Hip-hop visitor Stage presence makes Timberlake a natural actor

Listen up. We're calling the roll here: Ice-T, Ice Cube, DMZ, Eminem and now, somewhat incredibly, Justin Timberlake.

Timberlake is the latest resident and/or weekend visitor to Hip-hop Nation to prove himself superb in the movies. So help me, rap and post-rap forms of pop music are infinitely better at turning out compelling and vivid movie actors than conventional rock and pop music ever were (for which the entire screen careers of Mario Lanza, Johnny Ray, Elvis Presley, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Mick Jagger, etc. will provide ample illustration).

To rap successfully, you've got to have stage presence. And anger -- and all the attitude that anger creates. And when you put all of that in front of a movie camera, these guys -- even a hip-hop dabbler such as Timberlake -- are naturals. Add to that oodles of experience in front of a camera making videos, and you've got young actors with all kinds of movie potential.

Timberlake may only visit Hip-hop Nation when he can get through customs, but he is terrific in one of the strangest films of the season, "Alpha Dog," a Troubled Teen movie in the ancient tradition but redesigned for the 21st century.

Timberlake plays Frankie, a baby-faced tough guy wannabe whom we first see doing curls with his weights in a San Fernando Valley garage. On his body are several tattoos, including, on his chest in big, old-English lettering, "EST. IN 1976." He's not the only one of his buds to have tatts. Nor is he the only one to act as if he were in a rap video, throwing curse words around and asking others in his posse "what up?"

Nor, in truth, is Timberlake the star of the film but rather just a member of a very good ensemble directed by writer/director Nick Cassavetes as if he were auditioning to be his father, the legendary actor/director John Cassavetes. Cassavetes pere was the man who virtually invented the modern form of independent moviemaking and directed his actors with raw, improvisational, often astounding naturalism. (See "Faces," "A Woman Under the Influence" and, especially, "Husbands.")

We're in the mid-'90s here. That's because this tale is loosely based on the story of Jesse James Hollywood, a no-account drug dealer and loan shark who managed to graduate into being one of the youngest ever on the FBI's Most Wanted List.

We're seeing the tale of how he did it, and it's by turns obnoxious, funny, tense, tragic and absurd. The movie, in truth, is a mess and a failure but, so help me, if it's often more annoying than most other movies it's also more arresting to watch than a lot of films that know for sure what they're up to.

These Valley kids comprise a whole world of baby-faced hard cases, drinking, doping and shagging around (as Austin Powers, one of their movie faves, might put it). They're twerps really but all the more troublesome because deep down they know they're twerps.

The Hollywood figure here -- played by Emile Hirsch -- gets into a $1,200 beef with the only one of these twerps to be psychotic and tweaked enough to be truly dangerous. His tatts on his arm are in Hebrew, and he's played by Ben Foster, who is riveting but also, often, over the top in a way that would have delighted Cassavetes pere. The character's last name is Mazursky, an obvious tribute by Nick Cassavetes to one of his father's friends and directors, Paul Mazursky.

So the drug dealer and loan shark filches his enemy's kid brother, played by Anton Yelchin, the compelling, sensitively mush-mouthed young actor best known for being the son of "Huff" on Showtime's series. For Mazursky's 14-year-old kid brother, it's like the coolest possible vacation -- a chance to hang out with the big kids drinking, doping and messing around with girls two at a time.

Until, that is, they have to figure out what to do with him, and thoughts of kidnapping and life sentences pass through their tiny minds.

Genres crash into each other at barely coherent top speed here -- Cassavetes movie, troubled-teen movie, crime docudrama. Some of the young characters scale heights of inarticulation seldom imagined -- except by enlightened members of the Cassavetes family.

But once it hooks you, you understand why it was probably the only way a Boy Band refugee like Timberlake was ever going to get anyone to sit up and take notice of him as an actor.




2 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Justin Timberlake, Ben Foster, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone, Anton Welchin and Shawn Hatosy

DIRECTOR: Nick Cassavetes

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

RATING: R for constant drug use and rough language, much nudity and violence.

THE LOWDOWN: The violent world of troubled teens in California, loosely based on the life of FBI Most Wanted fugitive Jesse James Hollywood.

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