Weekend Roundup: Smokin' Aces, Venus, Because I Said So
By Fernando F. Croce

Why is the radical avant-gardism of Inland Empire clear as day while the mainstream genre contortions of Smokin' Aces remain an unintelligible smear? Simple: While David Lynch's sublime phantasmagoria streams from his heart and guts, Joe Carnahan's amphetaminized burlesque springs out of sneering attitudinizing, or maybe out of bile from not getting the Mission: Impossible III gig promised by Tommy. Whatever the reason, this is a step backwards for the director, a return to the dick-waving shenanigans of his pedestrian film debut Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane instead of an advance on Narc, his brooding sophomore effort. Still scrambling to wow studio bosses who think it's still 1996, Carnahan from the onset coats claustrophobia with sweat, stuffed in the FBI van with agents Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta; a penthouse is later on made as confined as an elevator -- Carnahan is big on cramped framing, as obvious a standby for generating "tension" as his casting of weary goomba stalwarts Alex Rocco and David Proval for mafia ambiance. A cool million has been offered, explains Ben Affleck through a '70s-porn mustache, for the head (and heart) of a missing gangland stoolie; Affleck and his pals pack their shotguns and go a-huntin', as do Alicia Keys and Taraji P. Henson as a Coffy-Sheba, Baby couple, Tommy Flanagan as a master-of-disguises psycho, a trio of hillbilly neo-Nazis, and about a dozen or so other jabbering bounty hunters thrown in like vaudevillian acts waiting for the hook.

What these corpses-to-be assclowns add up to is a hipster's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World retelling, with the much coveted "big W" ("W" as in "Why the fuck are we still making films that look like they were edited with a epileptic blender?") embodied by Jeremy Piven, a mob-connected Las Vegas entertainer who, as the authorities' major witness, waffles around in a burgundy bathrobe. The camera is mounted for a mock-helicopter swoop over the Lake Tahoe landscape, then craned down through the roof of the snitch's hideout to find the remains of a debauched night, hangover Piven looks up at the dawning sun for the piddling punchline -- there's a good joke somewhere in the showmanship linking Vegas trickery to organized crime, but all Carnahan can come up with is a fatigued metaphor about the lying inherent in cinema's illusionism (the Usual Suspects-Things to Do In Denver When You're Dead-Lucky Number Slevin neck of the woods, specifically). "You see exactly and only what I choose to show you," Piven says while levitating a card out of his deck, and what Smokin' Aces chooses to show is a Frankenstein's monster of slick shtick, bits of business stitched to bits of business: a smoky elevator slowly opens to unleash a kennel of barbarians, Henson handles a rifle twice her size, Affleck is made into a Charlie McCarthy dummy for a redneck's routine of forgiveness. When Reynolds is by the end crowned the flick's moral compass and given a somber quandary, it's as if the maker of Narc were at last peeking through the eight-inch veneer of "hipness," but by then Carnahan is tugging at a dry udder -- he's proven himself as the poor man's Guy Ritchie, which is sad since the poor man already has Guy Ritchie.

*

Smokin' Aces seeks the coolest angle to film perforated bodies, Venus looks for the most tasteful side to photograph a prostate exam: different genres, different aesthetic choices. The one getting probed here is Peter O'Toole -- the gaze of the camera insists on accentuating the frailness of his frame, but the 74-year-old legend gazes back at his mortality, and chuckles. "Come on, old man," O'Toole slaps the ravaged body housing the elfin spirit, the aged physicality which can't slow down his timing, wit or sense of theatricality. His character is a famous thespian, now relegated to playing corpses on TV but once and always a "professor of pussy," even after an operation has defused his sex drive; he contemplates a Venus painting, then finds his own goddess of love in a still-life reproduction, a friend's coarse, teen niece (Jodie Whittaker) half-awake in bed, naked shoulders and a line of empty cans by the window edge. Slinky in his doddering, O'Toole could be John Barrymore parachuted into Leigh's All or Nothing, but the dour director Roger Mitchell sadly keeps it grounded in coastal colors and prestige-release tastefulness. It is worth seeing for a few scenes between O'Toole and Vanessa Redgrave, both of whom brought tantalizing intimations of gender-blurring to late-'60s British cinema, he with his ethereal beauty and she with her masculine assertiveness (the idea of laying these two bare, like Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson toward the end of Saraband, is unthinkable in this timid a picture). And it is also worth seeing for O'Toole's incorrigible twilight jesting, mimicking an expiring body until the camera pulls back and he lights a cig, smiling.

*

On the subject of aging, Diane Keaton has done it gracefully; on the subject of Because I Said So, she has done it disgracefully. Evidence of why the term "rom-com" now strikes me like steel pins poking through the eyes, it has Keaton humiliating herself and her gender (and, hell, all humanity) in a rancid witches' brew of sexual psychoses, retrograde hysteria and white-bread superiority, all of it disguised as a simple botched farce. An actress who once successfully revolted against (in the process enriching) Woody Allen's steamrolling Nebbish-Eye, she is now a wind-up toy of pathologically "quirky" derision, here ladled with the extra torture of a character who wedges herself into the lives of her adult daughters (Mandy Moore, Lauren Graham, Piper Perabo) because (waaaait for it) she's never experienced an orgasm in her life. The old-folks-get-horny-too strain hails from the somewhat less toxic Something's Gotta Give, but the undisguised disdain for every last non-Caucasian bit player traces back to 1987's Baby Boom, whose "cute" inclusion of a burka-wearing applicant during a babysitter-screening montage is depressingly echoed here via a turban-wearing applicant during a boyfriend-screening montage. (Hand-me-downs from the '80s seem to be the only thing the director, Michael Heathers Lehmann, can now do.) All the fluttering and flustering about her character's birthday are reminders that Keaton is a beautiful sexagenarian, but, at the price of movies like this, beauty comes at as high a cost as Dorian Gray's.

*

It says a lot about the current state of American horror films that none of three current thrillers is nearly as disturbing as Because I Said So. All The Messengers can claim is an evocative credits sequence, pulling back from a starry cosmos to reveal the inky center of a sunflower engraving; the rest has city folks looking for "a little stability" in a spooked North Dakota farmhouse, with chunks of supernatural dread laid out so hammily as to peg the directorial tag-team of Danny and Oxide Pang as the conjoined William Castles of the J-horror turf (Kiyoshi Kurosawa might be the genre's Jacques Tourneur). Menace is even less explicable in The Hitcher, a remake of the great 1986 hound from hell in which Rutger Hauer seeped into C. Thomas Howell's skin -- the nasty dance of death from the original is replaced with generic shocks, a bored Sean Bean, and Sophia Bush in cutoffs, all fumbled by some music-video tool named Dave Meyers. If nothing else, the new Hitcher has at least enough sense not to give away its monster's secrets; Hannibal Rising actually attempts to explain how Hannibal Lecter became the cannibal Mr. Silk so many cubicle dwellers love to quote. As if Red Dragon weren't bad enough, here's young Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel) learning his gourmet ways while the culprits (director Peter Webber, writer Thomas Harris) shoot head-slicing bits for risible psychological seriousness. World War II beginnings? A lost sister? Gong Li as a milfy mentor? Hannibal the skin-munching Dr. Evil was less ridiculous.


Reviewed February 13, 2007.

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