Smokin' Aces

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dir. Joe Carnahan

Writer/director Joe Carnahan first burst onto the scene with 2002's Narc, a hopped-up police procedural that gloried in the jittery split-screen aura of the '70s. Frequent rush though it was to watch, Carnahan's calling card left a curiously synthetic aftertaste—a sense that the filmmaker knew full well what was cool about the movies that he so lovingly aped, but couldn't quite figure out how to claim that aura as his own.

Smokin' Aces, Carnahan's long-time-coming follow-up, finds him tackling a different breed of action movie—namely the glossy, overstuffed hit-man chic made famous by the likes of Tony Scott—to much the same effect. The premise—mob boss puts out a million-dollar bounty on a turncoat Vegas magician (Jeremy Piven, who plays this kind of asshole maybe a bit too well), inspiring an army of killers, feds, and assorted lowlifes to declare war on his Tahoe hideout—is an absolute corker, yet the sum feels significantly less than its parts. Carnahan may have set out to make the defining statement on the genre, but his film comes off as more like a tribute to the all-star disposable antics of The Cannonball Run.

Still, that's not to say that it isn't a fun ride along the way, chock-full of zingers both small (Jason Bateman's cameo as the world's skeeviest lawyer) and large (a scene between Ben Affleck and a trio of hillbilly neo-Nazis is astoundingly daffy). With such a wonderfully gonzo setup, the fact that the movie begins to lose momentum in the homestretch is perhaps inevitable. It's hard to think of a decent payoff to the glorious chaos Carnahan whips up in the first two acts, short of the earth itself exploding. I smell sequel. ANDREW WRIGHT

Catch and Release

dir. Susannah Grant

My first thought, upon hearing about the new Jennifer Garner tear-jerky romance, Catch and Release, was: "Somebody other than himself cast Kevin Smith to act in a movie?" Then, my second thought: "Thank GOD someone other than himself cast Kevin Smith to act in a movie!!!" Kevin Smith the actor is infinitely more bearable than Kevin Smith the moviemaker. And in Catch and Release he finds the role he was born to play: the hugely fat, perpetually robed, kind-hearted, wisecrackin' hippie roommate, never without a sandwich or two clutched in his sweaty paw, never thinking beyond the next "total waffle party." In other words, his own Kevin Smith self. It's surprisingly charming.

The film opens with a funeral that was supposed to be a wedding. The widowed bride-to-be, Gray (Garner, easily my favorite giant-jawed starlet), has become, in her shock and grief, a "hysterical fishwife." (Fishwife!) She pads around Boulder—a city even more entrenched in disgusting comfort than Seattle—in her Birkenstocks and peasant tops ("This is like a Patagonia Disneyland," complains love interest Timothy Olyphant), finding closure and truth and some fishing metaphor I couldn't be bothered to understand.

I like my rom-coms to clock in around 72 minutes; Catch and Release is just shy of two hours, and is the most mixed of bags. There are no funny parts, which is an unexpected relief from Hollywood's usual misfired madcappery. It's also boring. Olyphant is magnetic. Juliette Lewis is hysterical. Everyone is constantly wearing the worst outfit ever, which is pretty much exactly like real life, so nice work there.

But it's also dedicated to the notions that men don't know how to use kitchen appliances, and girls can't throw overhand, so fuck that.

I don't know—something (Olyphaaaant!) kept me from hating Catch and Release. But I never, ever want to sit through it again. Except for the Olyphant parts. And by "sit through" I mean "sit on," and by "the Olyphant parts" I do mean "Olyphant's parts." (Yikes, that was too far. Even for me.) LINDY WEST

Seraphim Falls

dir. David von Ancken

For devotees of gonad cinema, there may not be a better time to be had at the movies right now than the first 20-ish minutes of Seraphim Falls, in which Pierce Brosnan's outlaw mountain man evades capture from a bounty-hunting posse led by Liam Neeson at his prickliest. Brutal, gritty, and virtually silent (save for Brosnan's increasingly ragged, leather-lunged vocal imitation of a wildebeest/Harvey Keitel), this opening is the sort of thing that you can imagine Jack London and Chuck Bronson tearfully tipping a 40 to in the afterlife.

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The rest of the film can't match that initial frostbitten rush, opting instead for an increasingly strained faux-mysticism and some tired old saws about the duality between hunter and hunted. (They're similar, apparently.) Still, the considerable charisma of its leads—particularly Brosnan, who proves that his post-Bond charm surge in The Matador wasn't a fluke—and some inspired secondary casting choices make for a fairly compelling ride.

CSI vet David von Ancken, here making his feature directorial debut, has clearly studied the works of his genre predecessors (he knows exactly how long to hold a shot of horses on the horizon for maximum pleasure), but proves far less sure-handed on the storytelling front. Far too often, the plot stops dead in order for its stars to stand around making vengeful goo-goo eyes at each other. That said, just about every time you're about to give up hope entirely, yet another trippy character actor (Tom Noonan! Wes Studi! Angelica Huston! Tom Noonan's astounding beard!) shows up and lends enough weirdness to the proceedings to keep things going. Seraphim Falls may never live up to the promise of its first astonishing reel—to be fair, it's hard to imagine many films that could—but there's enough good stuff scattered within to sate all but the most ardent oater fan. ANDREW WRIGHT

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