Friday, July 23, 2010

Film Friday: Smokin’ Aces (2007)

Smokin’ Aces fascinates me, but for the wrong reasons. On paper this movie must have looked great. You’ve got a solid cast, a director with a hip style, and a downright clever script. But something went wrong on the way from paper to film. As I see it, the director worked too hard to be clever and not hard enough on getting control over his film reality.

** spoiler alert **

Problem No. 1: Script-Abuse
If you just consider the script itself without paying attention to the final film product, you would think this would be a pretty good movie. For one thing, the story has an interesting premise: Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven) is a Vegas magician/mafia associate, who wants to turn informant. As Piven waits in the penthouse of the Nomad Casino in Lake Tahoe, while his agent negotiates a deal with the Department of Justice -- headed by Andy Garcia, the mob puts a massive bounty on Piven's head. This gets half a dozen assassins racing for the million dollar prize. Sounds like fun.

Further, script-wise, everything ties together nicely. Everything that needs to be foreshadowed is foreshadowed. All the motivations make sense. The dialog fits the personalities. The characters are interesting and there are dozens of moments of cleverness, both verbal cleverness and plot cleverness. But something has gone wrong from script to screen.

Specifically, the film feels gimmicky because the director ties together each scene by having the first line of dialog in each scene reference the last line of dialog in the prior scene. Thus, one scene might end with a character saying: “what time it is?” and the next scene would begin with a character in a different scene saying something like: “Five o’clock is when it happened.” This was used incredibly effectively in The Fifth Element, where multiple scenes were sometimes combined into one through interlaced dialog. It allowed the director both to speed up the story AND to bring the characters together -- giving the movie a more tied-in feel. But in Smokin’ Aces, this was done in a such a heavy-handed, obvious and unrelenting way that it screams: “look how clever I can be!” It's like giving the punchline to a joke in the middle of the next joke, and while that can be clever if done sparingly, it becomes unpleasant done constantly. Indeed, it quickly becomes tiring trying to sort out the double meanings of each scene transition.
Problem 2: Too Many Lead Actors
The next problem comes from the use of the cast. The cast is very large and mostly famous: Ben Affleck, Common (Terminator Salvation), Alicia Keys, Jason Bateman, Ray Liotta (Goodfellas), Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal), Chris Pine (Star Trek), Matthew Fox (Lost), and a couple more you’ll recognize. And it’s hard to complain about this group as they all do a pretty good job. But the director decided to give them all “a moment.” Thus, the film starts to feel disjointed as each character is given time to do their “shtick,” whether it helps the movie or not. And some scenes do nothing but distract from the film, e.g. Jason Bateman's scenes could be removed entirely.
Problem 3: Loss of Control
But the real problem with this film is that the director loses control over the film’s reality. Smokin’ Aces feels like the director shot seven or eight distinct stories with each character eventually ending up in the same place, then cut each film into equal length segments and assembled the movie by alternating these segments starting from the end of the film and working his way to the beginning without regard for how they fit together. This causes an amazing amount of time distortion in the film.

For example, one character starts up in the elevator toward the penthouse but somehow doesn’t reach the top floor before another character can drive from across town to the casino, interview staff members about the assassin in the elevator, get into a second elevator, and meet the assassin at the penthouse. In the same amount of time, another character flies from Los Angles to Tahoe and still arrives only a few seconds after everyone else. In another egregious example, one character actually gets shot in the parking lot, dumped in Lake Tahoe, finds his way out, runs into a stereotype white trash family, takes a bath, borrows a gun, returns to the hotel, hops in the elevator and rides to the penthouse in the same amount of time that the guys who shot him take to make it from the parking lot to the penthouse.

The director also lets characters see things and know things they couldn’t possibly see or know. Thus, one character in a hotel 1000 feet across the street can shoot through walls that she can’t see through and hit specific targets in the main hotel without wasting a shot. Others seem to know where their competitors are, even though they don’t actually know there are competitors. Characters also seem to be able to suddenly appear wherever they are needed to make a scene work. Moreover, the ending makes no sense except to allow for a dramatic conclusion.

These are the kinds of problems that really make the film feel unbalanced and strange, and keep you asking “when did he have time to do that?” and saying “that doesn’t make sense.”

In the end, this was a clever script and a solid cast ruined by a director who never had control over his sequence of events and who tried to substitute hip for smart. And that’s why I find this film so fascinating. If you had looked at this project before it was shot, this movie must have appeared like it couldn’t fail. But it did.

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25 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - I tried to watch it and it just didn't grab my attention. As such, I don't feel qualified to critically analyze. On the surface, the plot has potential to be of interest, I'm not as sure of the script.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I thought the concept sounded like a really cool premise for a (mindless) movie. And the thing is well written. . . technically speaking. But it falls apart from the get-go, and I think that's because the director never envisioned this as a whole movie, but as a series of scenes that he eventually slaps together into a single movie.

That means the movie meanders at times, it loses focus, it includes a lot of irrelevancies and pointless sidetracks, and it has a hard time coming together. I also think the director was trying so hard to be hip that he forget to nail down the parts that actually pull people into a movie.

Rather than setting you up with characters you care about and a storyline that promises to be intriguing, what the director gives you is a list of characters and then says "ok, now they race to go kill the guy, see you at the end." That's not likely to pull people in.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

Do you think it could be improved by a recut like Annie Hall? I had heard that originally Annie Hall was a murder mystery, but because Woody Allen had created an incredible mess with what he shot, they cut out most of it and was left with Annie Hall.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Interesting thought!

The answer is: I think so.

There is a lot of excellent material there. It's just kind of jumbled. If they re-cut it to narrow the focus, remove some of the excess, and make some of the "stories" more coherent, it would probably be a decent movie.

But I'm hesitant to say "yes" for sure because this is also an "attitude movie." So while re-editing would make the story tighter and better, it also would likely undo "the attitude."

Still, if I held the rights, I would give it a shot just to see how it turned out.

(They're making a sequel now, by the way.)

P.S. That's interesting about Annie Hall -- I hadn't heard that, but it doesn't surprise me. You often hear of movies that get seriously re-cut into wholly different movies. . . sometimes good, sometimes bad.

Check out my discussion of Brazil (where I talk about the studio re-editing it) for an example of the really bad.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, By the way, along those lines, I often think about how I would re-cut movies (in fact, a lot of people do -- there are websites dedicated to this, though with copyright issues, they're getting harder to find).

"One" movie that I would really like to recut is the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean. I think there is one really excellent movie buried within those two films, it's just surrounded by a lot of fluff, gimmicks, kitsch, and way over the top special effects.

ScottDS said...

Andrew, I'll have some comments later tonight. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Ok Scott, we'll leave the website's lights on for ya! ;-)

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

I can't see that with those two movies being made into one. But I did see the Godfather Triology cut chronologically. All the Godfather movies had flashbacks. This was unique. I finally understood what Made the Godfather the Godfather. It was out on video. I don't know if it still is available. It wasn't as interesting as the originals, but...

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, That is the danger of re-cutting a film, that you end up with something that just isn't quite right, even if you keep most of the material. A lot of films are about the look and feel as much as the story. In fact, I think that was the real problem with Lucas's remake of Star Wars. He took a very minimalist (almost Kurosawa-like) "zen" film and completely lost the feel of the film by inserting videogame imagery into every nook and cranny.


I could definitely see the two later Pirates movies rammed together. They are largely the same movie already story-wise. But even more so, I'd really like to take out the bit at the end of each scene where they always felt the need to toss in some comic relief. I think it very much distracts from the rest of it. I would also like to see the last 20 minutes of special effects hacked off the third one -- totally boring.

If I ever get the time (and the understanding of the editing software) I might give it a try and see what happens.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: I'm afraid I spent more time counting the f-bombs and figuring out how long it would take to clean up all the blood than I did paying attention to the plot. Did it have a plot? LOL

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, It did indeed have a plot and let me give you the full run down: some people are racing to kill someone else. ;-)

Actually, it has a lot of microplots -- where each story has it's own 2-3 plot drivers. Normally I would enjoy a series of subplots all woven together as they tend to give you more realistic characters. But this was the wrong movie for that kind of structure because it was so relentless in getting to the shootouts.

Ed said...

I think you're right. I kind of liked this film, but something about it just didn't work for me. I also noticed that I was constantly thinking how did they pull that off?

Also, I like your reviews, please keep doing them! :D

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ed, I like doing them. I just need more time to see some movies and think about them.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

Have you seen The Blind Side yet? I would love to hear what you thought of it.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I haven't. It's been such a busy summer that I haven't had the chance to see anything. . . all the movies I want to see are piling up on my television. I'll let you know though as soon as I see it.

ScottDS said...

Okay...

Andrew, you and I actually had similar reactions. I thought this film had a great concept but the execution was subpar. I only saw the film once on DVD a few years ago so I can't remember specifics but I vaguely recall being disappointed and thinking that the film was undone by its own excess. What could've been a cool little ensemble caper became an overloud, overblown mess.

I had the same reaction after watching Domino. "Supermodel becomes bounty hunter? Awesome!" But the resulting film was too bloated.

Re: Annie Hall - yes, it was originally a murder mystery and Woody basically removed all that stuff and might have even used some of those plot elements later for Manhattan Murder Mystery. (Woody doesn't do DVD extras so we'll most likely never see any of that footage.)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think "undone by its own excess" is a good way to put it. Everything they did, they did too much.

Take for example the Jason Bateman scene. First, that scene doesn't even need to be in the film, as the information it conveys could have been given by Affleck in one sentence. Secondly, having chosen to include it, the scene is packed with "too much." Why is he, the lawyer, meeting the bounty-hunter in his underwear in his own bedroom, and why is the room crawling with sex toys and hints of strangeness? It means nothing to the story. At the same time, Batemen is trying too hard to be cool with the guys, but is also asked to come across as a huge coward who is uncomfortable even talking to these guys. And all of this is actually pointless to the plot. So what you end up with is a huge mess of a scene that only seems to be there to make the audience uncomfortable.

It's the same thing with the white trash kid -- just too much going on, and the director again keeps throwing in things to make the viewer uncomfortable, as if that makes the story more interesting.

Almost everything in the film is done to excess. Just shoot the guy, don't try to use chainsaws. Making masks of dead butlers? Killing the hotel security guy? Using a 50 caliber? It all probably seemed cool when they included it, but it comes across as "just too much."

It's the same thing with the style -- it's like they literally never took an idea back out once they included it, whether it fit or not.

I think the lesson here (and this is something I've noticed in every style of writing) is that you should almost always remove the things that you thought were "super cool", i.e. the "quirky" things -- those are almost always the proverbial bridge too far.

MegaTroll said...

I agree about the movie and I like the way ScottDS put it. If I had to choose one word to describe the movie, it would be "excessive." Or maybe I would choose "indulgent." There was nothing they did in this film that they didn't do to excess.

I have to say too that I was disappointed because when I first heard about the concept and the cast, I thought "this could be a really cool movie." Parts of it were, but it just seemed that too many scenes left me feeling like they were just playing around.

AndrewPrice said...

Mega, I was pretty excited about it too. I like a lot of the stylized films and this one looked to be pretty promising from the previews. But it just never came anywhere near achieving it's potential, and I think the reasons are those given above.

I guess we'll see what the sequel brings?

ScottDS said...

There was a direct-to-video sequel and I heard it was crap... like every other direct-to-video sequel ever made.

I can go either way on heavily-stylized movies. Sometimes it works, other times it's nothing but an indulgence. (I'm looking at you, Tony Scott!)

Speaking of drastically recut films, do some research on Superman II. Very interesting backstory.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I take it you're talking about Domino? Or is it something else Tony Scott's done?

Domino left me very indifferent. I had the same feeling with the remake of Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 -- I just couldn't get myself to care about the film in any way. . . nothing good, nothing bad, just forgettable (I did really like the original).

In terms of stylized films, I really liked Out of Sight -- very good; I like Get Shorty; and I like the Ocean movies -- Ocean's Thirteen in particular was all about style. I would also add The Usual Suspects to this, even though I think it goes WAY beyond style (it's one of my favorite movies, by the way).

I did not like Get Carter or Be Cool, which were very bland "style" films, or this whole series of British 1960s heist films like Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels.

I think style films are harder to carry off because you really need a ton of chemistry between the actors to keep the audience interested. And chemistry is one of the hardest things to come by in a film.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, P.S. I've read about Superman II -- what a mess!

Check out my article on Brazil that I linked to above, that one's really fascinating. If you ever get the chance, the box set has in it (1) the original cut by Gilliam, (2) the American cut by the studio, and (3) a documentary discussing both. It's well worth watching both films to see the difference. It's truly amazing how different the two films feel, even though they are based on the same footage.

ScottDS said...

I already own the Criterion Brazil boxset - and I am patiently awaiting a Blu-Ray release (no news yet)! And your Brazil article was the first article on here that I commented on, so long ago. :-) Jack Matthews, who did the documentary, also wrote a book on the subject, titled "The Battle of Brazil: Terry Gilliam v. Universal Pictures in the Fight to the Final Cut."

I was mostly referring to Domino (and Man on Fire, though at least that was a good movie), but I suppose it also applies to Pelham 123, which I watched during my time in the NASA study. It was totally forgettable and I even remember telling someone, "We should rent the original - it was badass!" only to hear, "There's an original?"

As far as the others you mentioned, I couldn't get into Get Shorty but I'll have to try again one day. Haven't seen Be Cool, still haven't seen Out of Sight, and I've seen Oceans 11 and 13, both drenched with style, but in a good way. And The One Who Got Away (the Star Wars girl I mentioned the other day) was an extra in Oceans 13. Flowery dress, frame right. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think that Ocean's 13 is the movie that Smokin' Aces wanted to be, but it just never quite hit that level of hip -- the writing style and direction are both similar, as is the use of lighting, music, pacing, etc. I think the big difference is that Ocean was much more focused and didn't take strange little side-tracks, it had a more hip cast, and its actors tried to act nonchalant about being hip, whereas the actors in Aces went over the top about being cool.

You would like Out of Sight. It's Clooney at his best and there is definite chemistry between Clooney and Jeniffer Lopez. It's also got a very strong supporting cast, a fast-paced story, and interesting twists and turns.

On Brazil, I find the whole things truly fascinating. I have to admit that I think both versions of Brazil fail, as do all of Gilliam's films (except maybe Twelve Monkeys), but it's fascinating how badly they butchered his film to try to squeeze it into a studio formula. Those two versions are something that I think all "students of film" should see.

Doc Whoa said...

I hated this movie. I see your point, but I still hated it.

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