guppy's film reviews

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Smokin' Aces

Also reviewed this week: Alpha Dog

Director: Joe Carnahan
Notable Actors: Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Common, Andy Garcia, Alicia Keys, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds
Score: B
Summary: Looks like mindless fun, plays like a slightly overly complex dramedy.

Damned if there isn't a lot of marketing behind Smokin' Aces. I've been seeing ads for this movie everywhere from CNN to Xbox Live.

Here's the setup: the Mafia is on its last legs, with aging, ailing mob boss Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin) as the only remaining major player. But there's one guy who has the dirt to put Sparazza under: Buddy "Aces" Israel (Piven), a Vegas entertainer turned dabbler in crime who has recently been offered immunity in exchange for his testimony. So, of course, Sparazza wants him dead. This makes Israel a flashpoint for all kinds of plotting and backstabbing and what-have-you, the most central of which is a $1 million bounty on his head -- well, heart (you'll see) -- which, of course, draws several of the best hitmen around. And, well, with that many hired guns around, I guess it's hard not to step on each other's toes.

The FBI wants Israel alive, of course, so he can testify against Sparazza. The team sent to protect him is headed up by Agent Messner (Reynolds), under the direction of Deputy Director Locke (Garcia).

The resulting mess can best be described as chaos on film. With all of these people bearing down on a single hotel penthouse suite, everything pretty much goes haywire, as you might expect.

Joe Carnahan both wrote and directed this movie, and it shows. While it provides a certain cohesion from which a film this (unexpectedly) complex benefits, this fact also creates two large problems. One, Carnahan sometimes forgets that we're not inside his head, so he jumps around a lot during the exposition. Two, he thinks his little creative touches are just so interesting, so he likes to rub our faces in them. For example, no one ever actually calls Buddy Israel "Aces." The only time that nickname comes up is when other people discuss him, inexplicably using this three-part name, which happens several times during the film. And Carnahan has Piven play with cards constantly, which looks dumb and has no bearing on the story.

I was looking forward to seeing Jeremy Piven in another starring role, since I've liked him since the first time I saw PCU on Comedy Central. Unfortunately, his character isn't very likeable, though it's tough to say whether that's Piven's doing or just the fact that Israel is kind of a sleaze.

Alicia Keys and her partner (Taraji P. Henson) do a creditable job as a southern black hit team, but they're such caricatures you can just tell their lines were written by a white guy. They're so over-the-top it's distracting, and that's unfortunate.

Other than that, I'm sorry to say that this star-studded cast doesn't do much to distinguish itself. Everyone fills their roles adequately, but few are really great. All I could think when I saw Liotta was, "Man, that's Ray Liotta? He's really let himself go." Most of the assassins are memorable, but that credit lies more with Carnahan for their creation than for any particular skill in their portrayal. One exception: one of the three Tremor brothers, and I'm honestly not sure which one, is top-notch and very entertaining.

Unfortunately I can't explain why I described the movie as complex, as it would require major plot spoilers. Let me just say, then, that I spoke to the friend I saw it with for several minutes after the movie to make sure we were on the same page.

Smokin' Aces is worth seeing. It's an absolute overload, if nothing else. But I can't call it A-list cinema.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Alpha Dog

Also reviewed this week: Smokin' Aces

Director: Nick Cassavetes
Notable Actors: Bruce Willis, Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Sharon Stone
Score: B+
Summary: Moderately effective sorta-kinda true story with a couple of bumps.

Alpha Dog is an odd breed of film. It's based on a true story -- that of Jesse James Hollywood -- but changes even elements as basic as the players' names. I had to refer to Wikipedia to get a feel for what was true and what was altered. However, it seems that between the time I read the Wikipedia article and the time of writing, that information was edited out for reasons unknown. There is a Wikipedia on Hollywood, but I advise against reading it (and have not linked it) because it would spoil the plot of the movie.

The basic premise of the film is that strung-out deadbeat Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) owes money to local drug dealer Johnny Truelove (Hirsch, a stand-in for Hollywood). Mazursky and Truelove get in a fight that leaves neither happy, and when Mazursky steps up the retaliation, Truelove vows revenge. While attempting to take that revenge, they stumble upon Mazursky's 15-year old brother Zack (Anton Yelchin), and on the spur of the moment abduct him. The remainder of the film is spent with the question of Zack's fate hanging in the balance as the responsibility of looking after him is shifted from person to person. A sizeable portion of that time is spent with Zack in the care of Frankie Ballenbacher (Timberlake), considering the awkward position Ballenbacher is in.

Against all odds, Timberlake presents the strongest performance. He's a sympathetic character, and it's hard not to feel bad for him as the situation degenerates around him. For a guy with basically nothing noteworthy on his acting resume, Timberlake handles the part very well, doing a superb job of conveying Frankie's emotions and thought processes.

Hirsch gave me the most trouble, and it's not because he did a bad job, exactly. I think it's just a question of miscasting. Hirsch is too damn likeable for the part. That works to his advantage, in part -- Johnny Truelove is a charismatic guy. But he's also a complete bastard, and Hirsch doesn't convey that well.

The movie is well-paced for the most part, but I do question a few of the director's choices. Some of the scenes seem completely unnecessary, although one of them does give rise to one of the funniest moments in the movie, if your sense of humor -- like mine -- has a mean streak.

I had no idea what I was walking into when I went to see Alpha Dog. I figured out that it was a true story pretty quickly, but the film's story stands on its own without that to prop it up. It's a solid and moving film that I think is worth seeing, despite its flaws.