Saturday, February 19, 2011

Very bad or very good? I really don't know. Smokin’ Aces – could there really something which might be called ‘abstract filmmaking’? Oh, odd stats

What with the unprecedented unrest sweeping the Middle East, it would be perverse of me not to add my two ha’porth worth. So let me instead ignore the issue entirely and tell you about I film I watched on DVD last night which was either very good or very bad. These judgments are, of course, subjective, and on the IMDB website there are plenty reviews which claim the film I’m talking about, Smokin’ Aces, is ‘awesome man’ or, for variation, ‘awesome dude’. I am, I should admit, inclined to think it is rather good, but I’m really not sure, and I am quite aware that that sounds ineffably daft. Let me start at the beginning.

A few years ago, a guy called Joe Carnahan, who had made two or three shorts, persuaded several people to part with their money to back a big independent production of his called Narc. The budget was only just over $7 million, which in film terms, I understand, is not a great deal. The film also got the enthusiastic support of Ray Liotta, who I have always thought to be a great actor, and for the part he plays in Narc he gained several stone in weight. You always know an actor is serious and sincere when he or she agrees to look like a repulsive fatty in a film. Robert De Niro did it for Raging Bull, Toni Collette did it for Muriel’s Wedding and Charlize Theron, something of a looker, did it to play a lesbian serial killer in Monster. (Incidentally, time will one day be when a man or woman’s sexuality is so utterly irrelevant that it will not be mentioned. So the above would then read ‘did it to play a serial killer’. However, that time has not yet come, more’s the pity. Oh, and Sue and Jaime, two women who already have two children - Jaime giving birth to them – now also twins. Good luck, Sue and Jaime.) But back to Narc and Joe Carnahan.

Narc was fresh and different, but not different in a way which was wilful as in ‘hey man, look how different this film is. Awesome’. It was obvious that, given the relatively small budget, a lot of thought had gone into it in order to get the necessary effects at bargain basement prices. It seems to be a rule of Hollywood that the bigger the budget, the more likely a film will tend to the mediocre. I made a mental note of Joe Carnahan’s name and soon found out that a follow-up to Narc was Smokin’ Aces. That film, however, was reputed by many not to be very good, and by some to be something of a stinker. I was intrigued, but accepted that that was possible. After all, a guy called Robert Rodriguez mad a film called El Mariachi, which must have defined the concept of made on a shoestring – it is reputed to have been made for under $5,000. It was a joy.

Rodriguez was then picked up by Hollywood, who know very well how to spoil a talent when they come across one, and financed a remake of El Mariachi to the tune of several million dollars. It starred Antonio Banderas and was, to put it bluntly, not very good. But young chaps being young chaps and enjoying seeing macho gunslingers blasting other men to buggery, it made money, so RR got to make more films. The last of these I saw was a complete abortion of a film – starring George Clooney and Harvey Keitel, no less – called From Dusk Till Dawn. By all accounts the same had happened to Joe Carnahan with Smokin’ Aces. So I didn’t bother getting it.

Every so often I saw it for sale at either Asda or Tesco, but just couldn’t chivvy myself up to buying it. I only did so yesterday when it had come down in price to £2. And as you can’t really even get a decent cup of coffee for £2 these days, I decided it was now cheap enough to have a punt.

Well, as I said it is either rather good or rather bad. If, as many assume, it was intended as a more or less conventional thriller, which these days means quirky characters are obligatory, then it is simply not very good. It begins in a welter of confusion with the ‘plot’ and the film’s characters – rather a lot of them and almost all of them hired killers – being introduced. These include a pair of lesbian hitwomen, a master of disguise, of Spanish hitman who is apparently so hard, he chewed off his fingertips so that he could not be identified by his fingerprints, a trio of brothers who are utterly whacky neo-Nazi hitmen, a Mafia godfather on his death bed and a Las Vegas magician who fancied himself as
a Mafioso but is now on the brink of turning stool pigeon and a trio of bondsmen. Oh, then there are two tough FBI G men (pictured), Ray Liotta, being one, who are tasked with getting to the Mafioso turned would-be informant before anyone else. Well, so far, so much complete bollocks. In fact, I was so utterly bewildered by the initial exposition (all done in that ‘cool’ buddy-buddy cop jive which Hollywood created and – a la life imitating art – young hipsters about town imitate) that I watched the first 15 minutes twice. But there was something about Smokin’ Aces which kept me watching, things such as the camera angles, the colour, which made me think that even if this guy has sold out and can’t really tell an interesting story anymore, at least he can film interesting film.

You might have gathered that I had already concluded that the horribly convoluted storyline and what passed for a plot really weren’t bothering with. For some odd reason, for some very odd reason, Andy Garcia, as a deputy director of the FBI affects a southern drawl. Why? But I had kept watching, not least because I have a lot of respect for Ray Liotta’s acting and just couldn’t work out what he would be doing in a duff film, especially as he was doing it pretty prominently in Smokin’ Aces. And there were some rather
witty scenes, as, for example, the one with the three bondsmen and a scumbag lawyer who like dressing up in women’s clothes. He only figured in two scenes, but those two scenes are priceless. Or what to make of the bizarre young lad with utterly manic attention deficit disorder at whose house one of the bondsmen (the three had all been gunned down by the trio of neo-Nazi hitmen for no reason whatsoever and dumped in Lake Tahoe) washes up. These scenes seem to play absolutely no part in the plot. He, however, survives though the fingers of his left hand don’t.

And then the penny dropped: the film wasn’t supposed to be taken at face value at all. The horribly convoluted, not to say completely ludicrous storyline, was intended to be beyond the pale. Smokin’ Aces was – is – pretty much film for film’s sake. And in that sense it made perfect sense. And if that really is the case – I must admit, the jury really is still out on that one – it is rather good. In fact, very good. It struck me as what I might call ‘abstract filmmaking’, filmmaking which celebrates filmmaking, but using all the conventional strokes at a director’s disposal and applying them, though not in the way you might expect.

At this point you might think me as a pretentious prick and Smokin’ Aces as just another piece of OTT Tinseltown schlock. Well, I would like to deny I am pretentious, or at least I don’t mean to be, but as for Smokin’ Aces being … I honestly do not know. It is either pretty good or pretty bad. To be honest, I think the odds are that I am reading a little too much into it, but I still like to think I am right. Narc was very good, and I would be surprised if this was very bad. I would be interested in hearing other opinions.



What is this mess? Or is it good? Jeremy Pivens as the Las Vegas magician turned would-be Mafioso (or something, sort it out for yourselves) tackles one of the weightier questions facing the human condition in the Year Of Our Lord 2011


. . .

Courtesy of the ‘stats’, which I am addicted to as it tells me how many people are inclined to read all this shit, I have discovered that someone happened upon this blog via Google. Nothing particularly startling in that, but what makes it a little odd is that the search terms he entered which brought him or her here were ‘Paul Dacre’ and ‘Oratory School’. Now, I went to the Oratory, which we knew as the OS, but Paul Dacre didn’t. But I work for a newspaper of which Paul Dacre is the editor. And I am bound to ask myself: what exactly was he or she (or, if you like, she or he) hunting down by entering those search terms.

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