Saturday, February 10, 2007

Big White Cloud On Me

I did not plan on writing about Joe Carnahan's Smokin' Aces. Typically I only write about films that I love on this blog and I did not love Smokin' Aces. I'm actually not even sure I liked it, and yet since I saw it just over a week ago it has stuck with me.
This is Carnahan's third feature after Blood Guts and Octane (which I didn't like) and Narc(which I did but thought it was overrated). Smokin' Aces is majorly flawed, overly complex and incredibly violent film that feels like a very pesky candle that either burns too bright or not at all. Almost every review I have read of the film calls it 'Tarantinoesque' and I know what they are trying to say but it seems to be one of those cop out terms that critics use everytime a new crime film comes out.
Tarantino is a master scriptwriter who is able to pull many disparate elements in and make them cohesive. It is Tarantino's control as a director that makes his films so memorable. They might seem chaotic and frenzied but underneath each one is a really assured craftsman. There is nothing cohesive or controlled about guys like Carnahan or Guy Ritchie. These guys are just about the chaos and Smokin' Aces takes this to the extreme. It is an ultimate 'kitchen sink' film made by a talented director who appears to be extremely frustrated and angry.
A key to the brutality that Carnahan injects in his Smokin' Aces is the fact that he was thrown off Mission Impossible 3 a couple of years back. Suddenly an up and comer got the rug swept from under him and the frustration and fear that Carnahan must have felt is poured into everything frame of this film.
A major problem with Smokin' Aces is its cast of 'I know that face'. Everyone from Ben Affleck to Alicia Keys(who is actually very good) shows up and the film would have greatly benefited from a cast of unknowns. Some of the casting works (Jason Bateman is great in his two very odd scenes) while some doesn't (Andy Garcia gives possibly his worst performance).
I was also never completely sure what kind of film Carnahan wanted to make. It works best during its most serious and over the top moments, but the attempts at humor continually undercut it. One painfully unfunny sequence involves a Grandmother and overly hyper karate kid that has cutting room floor written all over it.
This is also one of the most gleefully sadistic American films I have seen in a long time. The ratings board is obviously getting more and more relaxed or jaded, I'm not sure which. It works in the films favor, Carnahan's force as a filmmaker comes through in the film's most violent moments. Even at it's most overblown and ridiculous the violence in this film is absolutely hypnotic.
Smokin' Aces is a major train wreck of a film, so why I am writing about it? I think that this very well might become one of the major cult films of this decade. Last years horrendous Running Scared, which I could barely get through, was a predicted cult film by many but it already seems to have been forgotten and I think time will not be kind to that film. I have a feeling, that I can't totally put my finger on, that time will treat Smokin' Aces well. It takes years to give a film a legitimate cult following but I think this, as well last year's equally over the top but a lot more fun Crank, will find an audience that will embrace it eventually.
The film's biggest asset is without a doubt Jeremy Piven, an actor who continually delivers impressive performances in less than stellar films. Here, as the title character, Piven really shines. This is one of the great melt-down performances of the last few years and Piven injects this character with a sad, tortured humanity that saves the film in every scene he is in.
Smokin' Aces achieves true brilliance just once and it is a scene that keeps coming back to me. Aces has just sold out the last friends he had and he is bordering on overdosing on all the coke he has been snorting. His life as just caught up with him and he stands staring into a mirror. An extended version of John Cale's extraordinary Big White Cloud, from his first solo album 1971's Vintage Violence, begins to play and for several minutes Cale's song plays and we watch Piven fall apart. It's a beautiful, tortured few moments that silenced the rather large audience I saw this with. Suddenly everything works and director, actor and musician are totally together. It is a perfect moment in a very imperfect film and the most exhilarating moment I have had a theater in this young year.
Smokin' Aces might disappear when it is released on DVD but I doubt it. Carnahan is talented and he might have a great film in him somewhere, until then his 'disasters' will probably be more interesting than a lot of 'good' films that will fill up our theaters.

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