Now in Cinemas: Reviews for Feb. 15, 2007

Smokin' Aces and The Queen
Reviews by Jason Pirodsky

A dizzying hodgepodge of bizarre characterizations and complex plot devices, Joe Carnahan´s Smokin´ Aces has drawn comparisons to Tarantino, but owes much more to Guy Ritchie, with lightening-fast plot and minimal character development remniscent of the UK director. Story focuses on Las Vegas entertainer-turned-gangster Buddy ‘Aces´ Israel, who is about to testify against his former mafia cohorts. With a million dollar bounty on his head, and an apparent first-come, first-serve basis, a variety of assassins (with names like ‘The Swede´, ‘The Tremors´, etc.) descend on Israel at his Lake Tahoe hideout, with police in close pursuit.

Smokin’ Aces
Written & directed by Joe Carnahan. Starring Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Common, Joseph Ruskin, Andy Garcia, Alex Rocco, Alicia Keys, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven, Peter Berg, Ryan Reynolds, Martin Henderson,Taraji P. Henson, Chris Pine, Nestor Carbonell, Tommy Flanagan, Curtis Armstrong, Vladimir Kulich.
IMDb link
Plot, as it were, is recited in opening and closing monologues by Andy Garcia´s FBI agent; the big ‘twist´ being that the second one contradicts the first. Everything in-between is smoke and mirrors – one big, long shootout that lasts on screen for an hour but seems to take up about ten minutes in ‘movie-time´. Yet, this is a film where we care more about the smoke and mirrors more than the actual plot; one of the biggest faults here is that as the director wraps up his complex story, he simply abandons all those disparate characters we´ve spent most of the film with.

With a cast this large, disappointments are bound to be apt. Though Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds are good as the confused cops on the case, Jeremy Piven does nothing with the choice role of ‘Aces´ Israel, underplaying to little effect. Much of the rest of the cast is wasted, including Ben Affleck and Peter Berg in inglorious cameos, and Czech actor Vladimir Kulich, playing a substanceless red herring. Tech credits, though, are solid all around. Film is about as good as Carnahan´s previous two, the ultra-indie Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane, and the more moderately-budgeted Narc (which also starred Liotta); however, as casts have expanded and budgets risen for the director, so have expectations. Good fun for a while but inevitably unsatisfying.


The Queen
Director: Stephen Frears. Starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory, Roger Allam, Tim McMullan. Written by Peter Morgan.
IMDb link

Helen Mirren has been showered with praise for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, and deservedly so – in a masterful performance, she injects humanity into this larger-than-life figure with an extremely limited amount of room to act; as in reality, The Queen remains mostly emotionless to us – but here we learn why. Almost as impressive is Michael Sheen´s caricature of Tony Blair – his winning portrayal of the Prime Minister makes for an unlikely hero, a gentle voice of reason against the old establishment. Story focuses on the death of Diana and the politics of ‘handling´ the aftermath; as Queen Elizabeth and the Royal Establishment contend with the media, public opinion begins to sway. How Mirren´s Queen deals with this, and her relationship with ‘the people´, form the heart of this film. A lesser performance and the whole thing could topple over; here, we actually care about the Queen of England. Director Frears is in top form with a fine cast; the material is light but ultimately memorable.

Also opening this week is the Czech kiddie adventure flick, Maharal – tajemstvi talismanu (showtimes | IMDb), from director Pavel Jandourek. Film will be only be screening in a Czech-language version.

TIP: Catch an advance screening of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s excellent, Oscar-nominated Babel (showtimes | IMDb) at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům on Thursday 15.2. Warning, however: only about half the film is in English; the other half, mostly in Japanese (& Japanese sign language), Spanish, and Arabic, will be subtitled in Czech on Prague screens.

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