Sunday, 30 April 2017

GoldenEye: Bond back from the dead

Ba-ba-ba...BA-BAM! The Midnight Ramble closes out another month with yet another review of yet another James Bond movie, 1995's GoldenEye

It's 1986. James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and his fellow Double 0 Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) are on a mission at a chemical weapons lab in the Soviet Union. Trevelyan dies during the operation, leaving Bond to blow up the site and escape.

Cut to nine years later. The cold war over, Bond is dealing with changing times and a new (female) M (Judi Dench). When a Russian satellite station is attacked, Bond is put on the case to find the only survivor and prevent the titular weapon from falling into the wrong hands.

Bond's investigation leads him into conflict with a criminal organisation known as the Janus syndicate, and their leader, a resurrected 006...

After a six year break, during which Bond's Cold War milieu folded, and Timothy Dalton had resigned from the role, Bond 17 had a lot riding on its Brioni-clad shoulders.

Compared with License to Kill's fumbled attempt at revisionism, GoldenEye manages to overcome the obstacle of 007's perceived irrelevance with style and intelligence. A careful balancing act of being both fresh and vintage, it proved to be a major hit with existing fans,while providing an entry point for new viewers.

As an intro to the series, GoldenEye is hard to beat: you get great action, interesting characters and all the other ingredients of classic Bond, but within a contemporary frame. Unlike its predecessor, the filmmakers here retain the lush visual style which remains a hallmark of Bond, and is rooted in classic Hollywood-style continuity story-telling. It is a style which can be adapted to any context. Every time the series has gone for  a different aesthetic (License to Kill; Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace) that does not tie into the story or Bond's milieu, the resulting film fails.

Martin Campbell is the modern hero of the Bond movies. In a previous post, I went into his abilities as a filmmaker, so I won't spend too much time on his contribution. But suffice it to say that Campbell's work here plays an enormous part in this movie's success -- including his leading man.

Re-watching GoldenEye, it's interesting to see how young and fit Pierce Brosnan is. Compared to his later movies, he is a bit stiff, but that works for the movie -- GoldenEye's Bond is cold and methodical. Considering this movie is directed by Casino Royale's Martin Campbell, it makes sense. Brosnan's cool, methodical portrayal is less melodramatic than his later performances, and echoes in many ways the detached economy Daniel Craig has in Casino.
The rest of the cast are really good. Sean Bean makes for a fine bad guy. He's not one of the all-timers, but it is an interesting concept to have Bond face one of his own. The filmmakers under-cook their relationship a bit (the finale, while a good scene, lacks the intended emotional catharsis), but overall he is solid antagonist for this post-Cold War adventure -- and it is always a plus to have a bad guy who combines brains and brawn.

It helps that he is backed up by a great pair of hench-persons:

Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) is the best supporting villain the series has had since Jaws. A half-winking tribute to past femme fatales like Fiona Volpe and May Day, the character rides the line between cartoon and genuine threat expertly.

Gottfried John is also great as the more idiosyncratic General Ouromov. Smirking, drinking and sweating constantly, he casts a strangely human figure. The others may be completely insane, but Ouromov knows he is doing bad things -- which makes him the most despicable of the bunch. It's a bummer that he exits early -- as a character, he is more fleshed out than 006.

One of the movie's major (and unheralded) successes is in its female lead.
Played by Izabella Scorupco, Natalya Simonova is more fully developed than most of the female leads that precede and follow her.

A computer programmer, Natalya is intelligent and has skills that Bond does not. But she is not invincible. A human counterbalance to Bond's superman, she provides an emotional weight to scenes which, in any other Bond movie, would have little emotional impact (think back to previous movies where villains hijack a vehicle or piece of technology -- here it is grounded in Natalya's point-of-view, which converts the Russian technicians from cannon fodder to actual people). What is interesting about her character is that Martin Campbell aligns his camera with her POV throughout the movie, from her introduction during Onatopp's attack on the Sevranya facility, through her meeting with Bond and interactions with the film's villains. The filmmakers also give her more agency -- she has a sense of humour, she comes up with her own plans, is also smart enough to learn Bond's trade secrets, and even point out the moral ambiguities of Bond's character. She deserves more fans.

The movie's only real flaw is Eric Serra's score -- sounding like mash-up between elevator music and porno movie scores, it makes the movie sound even older than it is. Clearly, the producers felt the same way because they parachuted composer John Altman in to come up with a more orchestral score for the famous tank chase (Serra's version was released on the soundtrack album).

Here is Serra's rejected score for the scene.

And here is John Altman's track, as re-recorded by the Prague philharmonic orchestra.

It is a testament to how good the rest of the movie is that the music is not detrimental to its impact.

This is the first Bond movie I ever saw. I did not grow up with the video game because my parents were not fans of gaming systems so all I had was the movie, which I didn't own but caught on TV a couple times.

As the Brosnan era came to a close, I found this was the one Brosnan that I would watch again and again. Tomorrow Never Dies used to have that title when I was younger, but GoldenEye has more to it, in terms of the movie's story, characters and on a pure filmmaking level. Some parts of it have dated, but overall it is still enormously entertaining.

Taken as either an old-school action adventure, or an encapsulation of the Bond series, GoldenEye is terrific.

Previous reviews

Diamonds Are Forever

The Man With The Golden Gun


For Your Eyes Only


A View To A Kill

The Living Daylights

Licence to Kill

Tomorrow Never Dies

The World Is Not Enough (2010); (2017)

Die Another Day

Casino Royale

Quantum of Solace

Spectre (2015); (2016)

Friday, 28 April 2017

CAUGHT ON NETFLIX: The Wedding Party & Morris From America

One of the great things about Netflix is the chance to watch movies that would otherwise be inaccessible.

A recent example is the Nigerian romantic comedy The Wedding Party. The movie caused a sensation in Nigeria late last year, becoming the highest grossing Nigerian film of all time.

A romantic comedy about the hijinks at the reception for the marriage between the upper class Dozie (Banky Wellington) and the more humble Dunni (Adesua Etomi), The Wedding Party is a fun little caper.

I have never seen a Nigerian movie before, and this movie made for an interesting juxtaposition with the African Film Festival screenings I went to earlier in the month. While those movies were more indie in spirit and subject, The Wedding Party is a rom com, pure and simple. It's pretty conventional in plot, and if you've seen a Hollywood wedding/reception/Christmas/family hijinks comedy, you'll enjoy this.

Being a relative ignoramus on Nigerian movies, I was doing a bit of research while watching -- I read that Nigerian cinema had taken a few style notes from Bollywood (which is very popular in the country) and there are aspects of the movie where you can definitely see a bit of that influence.

While it is intended as entertainment, there are elements which are specific to the local context: the end of the oil boom hangs over proceedings; Dunni's parents try to placate their wealthy in-laws by booking a troop of dancers from their tribe, but pick the wrong one. While class is present as a fracture between the families, the filmmakers do highlight the bubble the characters are in by including a subplot about a poor man who finds an invite by accident and decides to crash the party. 

The acting ranges between totally naturalistic (the leads are really winsome) to panto (the mother of the bride is HUGE), but it helps to delineate between specific groups of characters and adds a few different tones to what could have been a fairly predictable ensemble (scorned ex, scorned brother, rowdy band of best men etc).

The most distinctive character is the wedding planner (Zainab Balogun). She is starring in a very different movie --  from her POV, The Wedding Party is a social horror story in which a professional woman loses her sanity trying to fulfill the conflicting demands of the warring families

A fun distraction, and a good intro into a cinema scene I was only vaguely familiar with.

Another movie worth recommending is the independent coming-of-age film Morris From America.

Craig Robinson has been a great comedic actor for several years now, but this is the first movie to  give him a real leading role.

 Here he plays Curtis Gentrya widower who has moved to Germany for work along with his 13-year-old son Morris (Markees Christmas). While Curtis is at work, Morris struggles to fit in with other kids his age. After his German tutor suggests going to the local youth centre, Morris decides to get out of his shell. Cue first love, and all that entails.

Variations on this premise have been done before, but this one manages to strike out on its own. While some plot turns are vaguely predictable, the understated direction and naturalistic performances help maintain an air of unpredictability. This elliptical quality prevents the movie from feeling hooked to a specific set of expectations -- the lack of music helps -- and makes the emotional stakes feel more real.

It's a small, intimate story with an empathetic, non-demonstrative perspective of its characters. It's really good.
Both movies are good examples of what platforms like Netflix and Amazon can offer. 

Saturday, 22 April 2017

FRESH MEAT Season Two: For The Love Of Vod

After a bit of a break, The Midnight Ramble dives back into Netflix's selection of British TV shows with the second season of campus comedy Fresh Meat.

Season Two takes a running leap over its predecessor. Our 'heroes' return, some having learned some hard truths, other having learned nothing at all.

Episode One
The house re-gathers following the semester break. Invisible Paul Lamb has left, so they are on the hunt for a new flatmate and contend with a host of personal crises: JP is dealing with his friend Howard's homosexuality; Vod is in debt to everyone in the house; and Josie tries to sabotage Kingsley's blossoming maybe-relationship with her friend Heather (Sophie Wu).

While it has the benefit of a previous season's worth of backstory, the first episode feels so fresh and full of energy. The various subplots are juggled effectively, and all the characters get plenty to do. Already, this show feels like it has found its groove.

Episode Two

Kingsley's relationship with Heather has caused Josie to become extremely vindictive. She ends up breaking Heather's arm during a self-defence demonstration. In an attempt to solve her financial woes, Vod gets a job as a maid in a hotel. She also pulls double duty, looking after JP when he comes down with the mumps. Fearing sterility, he stores a sample of his seed in the house's ice tray -- hijinks ensue.

Episode Three
This episode is the first time our anti-heroes have contemplated life after (failing) university. Following a bit of skullduggery at a jobs fair, Kingsley is presented with the opportunity to work for BP. This turn acts as a catalyst for Simon and JP consider new careers.

Already employed, Vod is deeply unhappy in her job. Sadly, this means she fails upwards and gets a promotion. This in turn presents an opportunity for Josie, who gets a job as a maid. Because she is an idiot, Josie gets fired. Flag this as the point where Josie's tenuous status as sympathetic lead begins to dip.

In an increasingly rare moment of self-evaluation, Kingsley gives up his invite to intern at BP, and gives his invite to the big BP function to Simon. In turn, he takes Vod as his plus-one. She stages a protest, exploding bags of oil on a dining table.

This episode represents an interesting case of use-and-effect. A character makes a choice, which influences another character to make a choice. It's a basic tenant of drama and comedy, and this domino effect continues to ripple throughout the season.

Episode Four
JP takes the team down to his estate for a weekend study-session/freakout party. At this point, I'm wondering how the girls can tolerate him -- this feels like the fiftieth time he's suggested the housemates have an orgy.

JP has a crisis when his mother reveals the house is being sold. This leads to a drunken party, and JP finally learns to let go -- granted, he ends up taking his father's ashes and taking a bunch of useless rich guy crap, but that's big for him. Meanwhile Josie learns her ex-fiancé is still getting married and decides to crash the wedding. She winds up parked outside and watching the festivities, unable to do anything.

It's a pretty bleak episode all round. There are a few laughs (Vod hunting is something we need more of), but there's a sense of melancholy here which dampens the spirits considerably.
Episode Five
This episode presents something I never expected: Vod in love.

The house gets burgled, after Josie leaves the keys in the door. In order to make it look like someone else did it, Josie smashes in the front door. Enter Al, a handyman tasked with fixing the door.

Enter Vod, fresh from an all-night bender, who spots Al the handyman and promptly falls in love with Al the handyman.

Cue the worst sex scene I have seen in a long time. While Vod is satiating her love for the handyman,  Simon is left heartbroken after Dutch housemate Sabine ignores him after their tryst last episode, and Josie botches a surgery because she is far too drunk.
At this point, I realised how little I cared about Kingsley and Josie. Thankfully the rest of the ensemble make up for the leads' deficiencies.

Episode Six
This episode begins with the revelation that Josie has been booted out of her course. On another front, Vod has to take a drug test to get the next instalment of her RAF bursary. She takes a sample of Josie's urine -- which leads us to discover Josie is taking her own version of happy pills.

Oregon finds the perfect man, a post-grad who works at the library, She spends this episode trying to nab him. However, having secured her prize, her euphoria is short-lived -- it turns out her new boyfriend is Tony Shales' son. Oh boy.

Meanwhile the boys go on a field trip for Geo. Sick of lecturer Dan's (Mark Webb) screw-ups, they lay a complaint which he finds about. The trip turns into a series of mind games as Dan tries to figure out who laid the complaint.

On top of this, Kingsley is suspicious that JP has eyes on his girlfriend, and Simon is trying to get over his feelings for housemate Sabine.

JP climbs up a rock face and gets stuck. This acts a catalyst for the guys to completely fall apart over their various sexual failings.

Episode Seven
Josie has taken to pretending to go to class, and then heading into town to gamble on the horses and eating ice cream while swinging (in a playground, not the other kind). Heather signs Kingsley up for an open mic night -- it's an embarrassing failure. After recognising her vocal talents, Kingsley forms a band with Oregon.

Speaking of Oregon, Tony finds out she has been seeing his son. Good times. Kingsley quits the band over the introduction of bongos before their first gig and ends up sitting outside with Josie. Ugh, guess where this going?

JP falls in love with one of his rich mate Tobeys' French cousin Celeste -- an alien concept. However his mate Ralph has called dibs, and then asks JP to guard his 'prize' while he is away. JP gives into his feelings, but in true JP fashion, screws it up all by himself.

Vod goes drinking with a famous poet who then dies. Vod has a wonderful sense of style this episode -- she dresses like Marilyn Manson at one point, and ends the episode dressed like a gentleman on the Titanic.

Episode Eight
The end of season two features several threads coming to a head. Kingsley wants Heather to move in, but the housemates hate the idea -- Kingsley decides to move out.

The other Professor Shales discovers that Oregon is dating her son -- unlike her estranged husband, she threatens to tell him what/who Oregon has done unless she breaks up with him. Meanwhile, Vod is forging poetry to hawk to Tony Shales.

Things come to a head at the Shales' pretentious party -- Kingsley and Josie give in to their desires and have vigorous sex while the Shales clan collapse in on itself and Oregon is abandoned by everyone and cries her brains out. oh, and JP ends the episode buying the house.

Vod's style choices continue to be on point -- at the party she's sporting a tweed coat and dress shirt ensemble with frilly collar. Great stuff.

By the end of this season, I have lost all sympathy or interest in Kingsley and Josie. The rest of the ensemble make up for their shared self-absorption. Not that they are paragons of virtue, but the show-runners appear to be engaging in inverting specific expectations relating to the characters: While the 'good' people start at the top and are in decline,  characters like JP and Vod are going the other way. The key difference is that these characters are true to who they are, while Kingsley and Josie are not.

Previous reviews


Saturday, 15 April 2017

IN THEATRES: Fate of the Furious

Two years after the blockbuster success of Furious 7, the Fast crew return in the eighth instalment of the un-killable petrolhead franchise.

Following the departure of Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker), the family of vehicular superheroes is torn asunder when growly patriarch Dom (Vin Diesel) goes to the dark side, joining forces with a hi-tech terrorist (Charlize Theron) intent on doing something bad. With cars.

The F&F movies, especially since Fast 5, has become one of the biggest franchises in the world. Embracing the 'family' dynamic, and exploding every idea of what a car can do, this series has somehow become one of the few non-superhero related film series out there. And this instalment is no different.

Let's get this out of the way, this movie is stupid. It's not 'Vin Diesel wearing a white tank and jeans to his wedding' stupid, but it is in the ballpark.

The arrival of F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) in the director's chair  initially had me a bit skeptical. Apart from his recent success with Compton, Gray's filmography has not been strongest: could he catch the same lightning in a bottle that previous helmer Justin Lin (and to a lesser extent, James Wan) had captured? Honestly, it's hard to detect much change from the usual palette. We do get some more high-stakes (melo)drama, which leads to something you don't usually see: Vin Diesel emoting.

On the action front, Gray earns his stripes. While the car stuff remains good (the nature of some of the action does require more CGI than the last few), the hand-to-hand combat and gunplay here is fantastic. The prison break sequence features the Rock and the Stath barrelling through a riot, body-slamming and beating up prisoners and guards alike. It's so cleanly shot and exciting, it had a shot at being my favourite scene in the movie -- up until the ending, which features Jason Statham rocketing around an airplane nailing bad guys while holding a baby. It's amazing.

Going into the plot will make my brain bleed, so let's just roll through the key players.

Screenwriter/franchise godfather Chris Morgan has given Dom a really strong motivation for turning heel (even though it does throw a spanner in the previous movies' timeline which makes no sense), and it makes his character far more interesting than he's ever been. His motivation is quite dark (and involves the death of a familiar character), but it boils down to something very primal, which gives his eventual escape an emotional resonance I have not seen in the series before.

As usual, The Rock is great as hard ass Hobbs, but his appearances in these movies feel like teases for a spinoff we'll never get. Even outside of the franchise, the Rock has not gone full action star in years. This guy needs a Predator or a Commando. He has the charisma, the muscles and the one-liners, but he needs a whole movie to kick ass in. The Rundown is still the closest thing he's had to an action vehicle, and that was over 13 years ago.

Tyrese Gibson is so good in these movies. I recently watched Baby Boy, which was his first starring role, and watching him here really clarified what he can and cannot do. In a complex character study like Baby Boy, he cannot navigate between the character's conflicting impulses. With a character like Roman, a man of extremely limited goals, he is perfect. He gets most of the movie's best jokes. He also gets a couple of clunkers you can see coming from the opening credits.

Ah, Nathalie Emmanuel. So beautiful, so boring. To her credit, her character is involved in two of the movie's better jokes. Apart from that, she disappears into the scenery. It does not help that she has to share hacking duties with Chris Bridges. It's ludicrous.

Scott Eastwood
But if anyone takes the non-entity award it is Scott 'Son of Clint' Eastwood. He is the butt of everyone else's jokes but he's so lifeless even on that level it doesn't matter.

On the villain front, Charlize Theron does not get enough to do. Chris Morgan has a depraved, cocaine-fueled genius (I'm guessing?) for writing these movies, but he totally misses the boat with the villain, sticking her on a plane and giving her pages of the most inane speeches I've heard in a F&F movie -- and that's saying something. Theron spouts a couple of metaphors which take about five minutes to get to the point. Or she gets meaningless garbage like this:

"You always said you live your life a quarter-mile at a time. So why don't you live your whole life that way?" 

Ah... Wait, what?

Theron does her best with what little she has, but the inspiration for her character appears to have finished with her hair extensions.

Jason Statham is great in this. He gets to be a part of the movie's best set pieces -- the prison riot, and the finale on the plane -- and forms a rapport with the Rock that made me want to see a buddy movie with these two. He follows the trend of the franchise redeeming its villains (remember this guy killed fan favourite Han), which makes none of the sense. But then again, the filmmakers kinda screwed up having him as a villain in the last movie, so his turn here is irrelevant.

This movie does not have the comic élan of Justin Lin's instalments, nor the emotional heft of James Wan's, and some of wear is starting to show. But I laughed from beginning to end, from the first gratuitous butt shot to the Rock nudging a speeding torpedo with his hand. The main actors have eased into their roles (Kurt Russell is having a blast), Helen Mirren pops in for a cameo, and the action scenes are all great. 

Thursday, 13 April 2017

AALIYAH: A retrospective review

Following The Midnight Ramble's detour into Rihanna last year, here's a look back at the work of nineties RnB superstar Aaliyah.

I was a bit young when she was in the ascendant, so I missed most of her music. The first time I remember her was as the female lead in the Jet Li movie Romeo Must Die and the song 'Try Again', off the movie's soundtrack.

Enough rambling. On with the reviews!

Age Ain't Nothing But A Number (1994)
Produced by her mentor/illegal husband R. Kelly, Age Ain't Nothing But A Number was a big hit in 1994 and made Aaliyah a star.

Nothing wrong with this picture...
At the time, the album was seen as something of a trendsetter, setting the template that later artists like Destiny's Child, Monica, Brandy, Alicia Keys and Rihanna would follow. It helped consolidate R Kelly's status as a mega-star, and along with his earlier album 12 Play, signalled a new style of RnB music for the nineties.

Which is not to say it's great.

While it is by no means bad, this album can be summed up as a couple of strong singles wrapped in hype, nineties cliches and R Kelly's requisite pervy-ness. The production is smooth and lush, while the beats and rap verses all feel very of their time.

'Back & Forth' is a great party song and 'At Your Best (You Are Love)' is a great cover of the Isley Brothers tune (and might boast Aaliyah's best vocal), but the rest of the track list is a little rote.

The title track, shorn of context, is a fine ballad, but the same cannot be said for 'No One Knows How To Love Me Quite Like You Do' which is just a collection of self-congratulatory platitudes about Kelly. Ugh.

'I'm So Into You' is a little generic, but it features a memorable melody and strong backing vocals, which help cover for the cut-and-paste lyrics. 'Young Nation' is a nice slow jam that acts as a spiritual sequel to George Clinton's 'One Nation Under A Groove', although it does feature Aaliyah singing about herself in the third-person, which just feels pointlessly aggrandising.

A seminal RnB record? Evidence for the prosecution? Bit of both really. The big problem may be that Kelly's productions are too attuned to her delivery, while her later work with Timbaland and Missy Elliott is more challenging and experimental. Kelly may have made her a star, but its her future work which would prevent Aaliyah from being a one-hit wonder.

If you can ignore the background stuff, the album is definitely worth a listen to see where Aaliyah started out. Some really great songs, and the filler is not that bad.

One In A Million (1996)
Freed of the smoking train wreck of her collaboration with R Kelly, Aaliyah gained two new collaborators in Timbaland and Missy Elliott, and found a second wind.

    No sophomore slump here! Everything about One In A Million is leaps and bounds beyond her debut. Age Ain't Nothing But A Number can't help but sound like 1994. Released two years later, One In A Million still sounds fresh and ahead of the curve.

    The intro feels like a response to the intro on her debut. Where that opener played like a red carpet for the arrival of R. Kelly's new protege, 'Beats 4 Da Streets' feels like an aural transition, as the singer leaves her mentor's aesthetic behind for something more mature and attuned to her talents.

    This segues into the opening track, 'Hot Like Fire' is a slow jam that feels akin to Maxwell and D'Angelo's first albums (both of which were also released in 1996). A near-total change of pace from the sound  and content of her debut, this song establishes a different vibe -- more sophisticated and adult, but without the crassness of Kelly's material.

    'One In A Million' is one of Aaliyah's signature songs, and offers a perfect example of how Timbaland's arrangements and production complement Aaliyah's voice. Whereas R. Kelly's pungent style blended with Aaliyah's soft voice, Timbaland's harder, yet more barebones aesthetic works against her voice to create a more interesting juxtaposition, the 'street but sweet' sound that became Aaliyah's defining aural signature.

    'A Girl Like You' interpolates a sample from the opening bars of Kool & the Gang's 1974 classic 'Summer Madness', which lends the song a certain wistful quality that adds to the flirtatious interplay between Aaliyah and rapper Treach (Naughty by Nature).

    A cover of an Isley Brothers song from 1983 (Aaliyah also covered their 'At Your Best (You Are Love)' on her debut), 'Choosey Lover (Old School/New School)' is the showpiece of the early part of the album, and sums up the intelligence of Timbaland's production. In keeping with its origins, the first half of the song sounds like an RnB ballad from the early eighties. Complete with wailing guitar and warbling electronic effects, it is the perfect accompaniment to the lyrics, in which a woman thanks her new lover for choosing her. About halfway through, the song completely changes -- the production jumps forward to the minimalist beats of the late nineties, but more importantly, the sentiment of the lyrics completely changes. If the first half of the song conveys the euphoria of early love, the second half is a post-mortem, after the relationship has failed and the lover has not turned out to be as virtuous as the girl thought he was. The chorus suddenly gains a biting irony, the stripped-down sound highlighting her cynicism and disdain. It's a great cover that manages to take a decisive step from the original and stand completely on its own.

    By contrast, I'm meh on the the remake of Marvin Gaye's 'Got To Give It Up'. It's fine, but it doesn't really add anything new. Considering how good the sequencing is on this album, I find it somewhat baffling that this song was placed after  'Choosey Lover', when the song that follows feels more like a natural progression.

    Speaking of which, it's hard to listen to '4 Page Letter' and not think of the singer's relationship with R. Kelly. Basically an ultimatum from a woman to her boyfriend, like 'Choosey Lover' it represents a break with the underlying machismo of her debut (which often feels like a tribute to its writer-producer). While her second album is mostly produced by men, the lyrical bite and focus on female agency and personal respect is almost certainly the result of Missy Elliott's involvement.

    'Everything's Gonna Be Alright' builds a terrific groove which feels like Timbaland's spin on 'Back& Forth'. I'm surprised it did not become more of a hit. I feel like I heard it a few times on the radio back in the nineties.

    'Giving You More' is more of a traditional romance number, with a prominent bottom end that makes its sentiment pretty clear. It's a bit of a surprise for how unsurprising it turns out to be. A good song, but on this album it's rather unadventurous. On the other hand, having such an earnest love song at this point in the track list adds a neat layer of contradiction to its developing thesis on relationships.  I'm probably reading a bit too much into this but almost as important as the songs on an album is the way they are arranged on the track list. By placing this song here, the overriding message seems to be that even with all its potential obstacles (adultery, superficial attraction, dishonesty), love remains a goal worth pursuing. Wow, that was longwinded.

    I will admit to getting a little restless about this point. The album is pretty long (15 songs, excluding the intro and outro), and while it is never boring, it could lose a few tracks.

    'I Gotcha' Back' picks things up with a really dirty groove, and a lyrical throwback to Bill Withers' 'Lean On Me'. It's a neat little number, although a bit short to stick in the brain box. 'Never Givin' Up' is a sweet but slightly rote duet with someone named Tavarius Polk. 'Heartbroken' feels cut from the same clothe as the previous song, but gets more interesting as it goes along (it's another Timbaland-Elloitt joint).

    'Never Comin' Back' is a female empowerment anthem within the structure of a RnB ballad. Instead of the traditional lament, its more focused on solidarity and rising above male BS. It's a neat, off-kilter combination which works a treat.

    'Ladies In Da House' features guest spots from Missy Elliott and Timbaland, but it doesn't quite live up to the pedigree. It's not nearly as good as the collaboration on Elliott's Supa Dupa Fly'Best Friends', but it picks up considerably once Elliott steps in.

    In a complete break with the rest of the album, closing track 'The One I Gave My Heart To' is a ballad written by Diane Warren (responsible for every mawkish hit song in the last thirty years), which probably tells you everything you need to know. Sounding nothing like anything else on the album, the power ballad is a perfectly routine example of a Diane Warren top ten hit (which it was). It's pretty sugary and super nineties -- in short, a bit rubbish. It's not a fatal blow though -- this album is still terrific, and Aaliyah does a good job selling the lyrics.

    Wow.  This album is awesome. I'm a bit bummed that it took me this long to listen to it. I've gone on a bit, so I'll put a pin in it here. One In A Million is a great record, and helped to show that Aaliyah was not going to be a flash in the pan.

    Aaliyah (2001)
    Postponed while she starred opposite Jet Li in the action flick Romeo Must Die, Aaliyah released this album only a few months before her death. Re-teaming with Timbaland and Missy Elliott (augmented by several other collaborators), Aaliyah's third album marked another development in scope and style for the young singer. Sadly, it would turn out to be her last.

    Just as its predecessor had done for her debut, Aaliyah breaks with the style of One in a Million. The style here is not that dissimilar to its predecessor, but it is more overtly  experimental in its overall aesthetic and more adult in content. Between the releases of her last two albums, Aaliyah had gone from teenager to young adult, and this album acted as a statement of this new maturity -- this growth was even reflected in the cover art. Whereas these earlier images presented the starlet as a cool but remote figure (emphasised by the heavy clothes and dark sunglasses), for her third album Aaliyah is foregrounded, dressed in a halter neck and staring straight out at the viewer. There is a confidence here that was not present before, and that is backed up by the music.

    'We Need A Resolution' starts things off on a high note. Considering the five year break, it gets the listener onside with a slightly updated take on the hip hop-electronic soundscapes of her previous album. It's a decent song, though not as memorable as the songs which immediately follow it. For some reason the powers-that-be felt this song should be the first single. It did not work, and Aaliyah was in the middle of prepping 'Rock the Boat' and 'More Than A Woman' as follow-ups when she died.

    A spacey mix of dub and EDM(?), 'Loose Rap' is a fun duet with Static Major. Static had become one of Aaliyah's major collaborators in the years since One in a Million, writing her hit singles 'Are You That Somebody' and 'Try Again' (her only number one on the Billboard Hot 100).

    A prime slice of millennial funk, 'Rock the Boat' rocks a pretty strong beat and catchy melody. It is also an example of the way Aaliyah managed to handle 'sexy' songs with that unique sense of grace and earnestness that had blunted and smoothed out the OTT lasciviousness of her debut. It helps that Static's lyrics manage to undersell the song's intent in a way that suits the singer. This song is where I really start to miss the music we never got to hear in the 16 years since 2001.

    'More Than A Woman' starts out sounding like the opening music to an eighties arcade game and then builds on a very hip hop-like rhythm into something more interesting. So much of what makes the sound on this record so immersive is how delicate the production is. The beats are not cranked up, and everything is mixed so that all the various components (vocals, instruments and synths) can breath. It results in a sound that feels out of time.

    'Never No More' is fine, although not nearly as memorable as the preceding tracks. It is noteworthy for the way it uses gospel-like backing vocals to create  a call-and-response over the chorus. It felt very reminiscent of Marvin Gaye's work from the seventies.

    Marked by variety of different percussive elements, 'I Care 4 U' feels like it could fit right at home in  today's dubstep-obsessed market.  'Extra Smooth' is also idiosyncratic, although the heavier reliance on a groove makes it one of the more danceable tracks. Compare it with 1994's 'Back & Forth' and you realise how far Aaliyah's music had come in less than a decade.

    'Read Between The Lines' and 'U Got Nerve' kinda blend together for me. Like the rest of the songs on the album, they combine RnB with a hip hop flavour, but they lack that special something, the catchiness and sense of experimentation that the other songs have. Speaking of which...

    'I Refuse' is delightfully eccentric. It's a weird anthem-ballad combo in which a woman refuses to continue in a toxic romance. Starting with the sounds of galloping horses, rain and cannons, and then a piano solo, producer J. Dub slowly adds new elements -- an electric guitar, a string section -- as the singer's resolve hardens.

    'It's Whatever' is dreamy electronica with elements of dubstep -- it sounds like a futuristic homage to Gaye's 'Flying High (In The Friendly Sky)'. It also sounds A LOT like that new RnB trio King who have been gaining heat the last couple of years -- I'm not saying they are influenced by Aaliyah, or this song in particular, I'm just running out of adjectives.

    'I Can Be' is a funky little number featuring plenty of distorted guitar, heavily synthesised beats and fragmented vocal loops. The guitar follows Aaliyah's voice so closely that they start to bleed together. It makes it a little hard to follow what she's saying, but it is rather fun to listen to. If Zapp decided to cover Funkadelic's Maggot Brain, you get the general idea.

    The odd grooves continue with 'Those Were The Days', a catchy song that could almost work as a dance track. It's too brittle to really get the pulse racing, but its idiosyncratic rhythm and percussive elements make it one of the more memorable of the album's deep cuts.  

    If I could use one word to describe 'What If', it would be busy. A heavy industrial beat is combined with wailing guitar and odd synth shrieks. Chuck in a repetitive secondary beat, Aaliyah's multi-tracked vocals PLUS a female backing chorus and you have an aural smorgasbord. Somehow all these elements work in sync with one another. It's not the best track on the album, but it's fun.

     The deluxe edition ends with 'Try Again', her hit single from the Romeo Must Die soundtrack. Considering the song's sentiment it is a bittersweet finale.

    Overall, this is probably Aaliyah's most fully realised album. The fact that her most adventurous album turned out to be her last is a real shame. If you want to check out one Aaliyah album, make it this one.

    Best of the rest
    Aaliyah released some strong non-album singles. The best of the bunch are 'Are You That Somebody' off the soundtrack to the Eddie Murphy vehicle Dr. Doolittle, and the aforementioned 'Try Again'.

    'Are You That Somebody?' was Aaliyah's first big hit after One in a Million. Produced by Timbaland, it was also her first song written by Static Major, and continued her transition from the simple pop of her debut toward the more experimental hiphop-inflected songs on her third album.

    The song grooves along to a borrowed guitar line (from the 1982 song 'You're The One For Me') and, bizarrely, a baby's cooing(?), along with a melange of beats and loops, all held together by Aaliyah's vocal.

    'Try Again', the only one of Aaliyah's songs to hit Number One on the US Billboard Hot 100, became one of her signature songs. It certainly did better than the movie it accompanied.

    A sparse blend of hip hop and electronica, 'Try Again' proves just how good Timbaland is at making a lot of very little. You think of the hit pop-busters of this era (ArmageddonTitanicMen In Black) and it is comical how little 'Try Again' resembles these songs.
      A memorable song that remains one of Aaliyah's best. The rest of her tracks on the soundtrack ('I Don't Wanna', 'Come Back In One Piece' and 'Are You Feelin' Me?') are pretty good as well.

      I also have a soft spot for 'Journey to the Past', which Aaliyah covered for the end credits of the animated movie Anastasia (1997). It's basically following the Disney formula of taking the movie's big musical number and releasing it as an RnB single. It's a good song, and while people generally consider the movie version to be superior, I like this take.

      Final thoughts
      The reason why I started this blog was partially for my own enjoyment, partially as an outlet for my mental ramblings, and partially as a catalyst to force me to watch, listen and read more things.

      I had only heard a few Aaliyah songs before writing this massive tome, so it was a fun dive into something new and exciting. It helped that the music was so good. Generally my musical taste skews a bit older than the nineties. I guess since it was the time when I was growing up, there's something overly familiar about the sounds of that time that has kept me from digging into it.

      I think listening to these albums has really helped break down that mental barrier, and I'm looking forward to what else I can find.

      To listen to Aaliyah's music is somewhat melancholy. Listening to her albums a few times, back to back, you genuinely get a sense of progression and growth. Even if she did not write or produce her own music, Aaliyah had an aural signature and style that were only encouraged by her collaborators. The fact that she was willing to step outside of the box R Kelly had put her in is a testament to her own taste, talents, and willingness to challenge herself.

      And while it's been nearly twenty years since her death, while listening to her music I could not help wondering what that time could have been like if she'd had a chance to keep going. It's weird to feel nostalgic for someone you have no ties to, but I have to say it was a bit of a bummer when 'Try Again' finished and I remembered that was the end.

      Ah well. No point in navel gazing. Aaliyah is one of the most influential singers of the last 25 years. If you want to know where Destiny's Child and Beyonce's whole career comes from, start here.

      Previous reviews




      Tuesday, 11 April 2017


      Rialto Cinema in New Market is hosting this year's New Zealand African Film Festival, so I decided to catch a couple of the films.

      Ben & Ara (Nngest Likke, 2017)

      Set in the United States, Ben & Ara is about the relationship between two philosophy doctoral candidates at an unnamed university, one an agnostic (Joseph Baird) and the other a devout Muslim (Constance Ejuma).

      Ben & Ara has two solid leads, its heart (and head) are in the right place and does not try to tie things up in a convenient bow. But the movie is seriously flawed. On the technical front, the movie is hard to watch. The main problem is that it is made up almost entirely of tight close-ups, which really undermine any sense of geography and relationships between characters. The movie feels overly claustrophobic and boxed in.
      The two leads are quite good, and have a good chemistry, but the rest of the cast feel like they are in a student film. Q'orianka Kilcher, who you might remember as Pocahontas from Terence Malick's The New World, plays another student with whom Ben has formed an open relationship. She doesn't really get out of it well, but it's more a result of an underwritten role and the insistence on framing every shot as front-on close ups than anything she does.
      Ultimately it is the half-baked script, and the stifling technical choices which limit Ben & Ara's impact. 
      Children of the Mountain (Priscilla Anany, 2016)
      I then watched Children of the Mountain, which turned out to be a completely different experience.

      After their child is born with a cleft lip, cerebral palsy and Downs Syndrome, Essuman's boyfriend abandons her. While she has the help of her good friend Asantewaa, she is ostracised by her community who see the child as a sign of her immorality. Desperate to find a cure, Essuman goes on a journey to save the child -- or rid herself of it.

      Children of the Mountain is an extremely empathetic picture about an extremely sensitive question: is Nuku a benefit or burden for Essuman? The film is ultimately resolves this conflict to the affirmative, but the journey getting there is harrowing. I appreciated the arc of Essuman's character, and how the filmmakers are unafraid to show her in a negative light: at various points in the narrative, she abandons Nuku. While her choices can be awful, the filmmakers pay attention to laying out the various forces (personal, social, cultural and religious) that Essuman constantly has to confront. it's rare to see a character as fallible as Essuman in a movie and her journey toward reconciling with her child is always engrossing.
      The one quibble I have with the movie is the ending. There is a deux ex machina which happens which I still am not sure about. It feels a bit pat for a movie that has previously been so daring and unpredictable.
      Initially I was concerned when I saw that they had cast a child with a cleft lip as Nuku. It was difficult to judge whether the child had any of the character's other impairments.  The kid does not have to do much, but there is a scene where he is abandoned by a river which made me question the ethical implications of such casting. A brief segment before the credits cleared up this concern.
      Acting by the unknown cast is all great and completely believable. Rukiyat Masud delivers a multifaceted, brave performance in the lead. Despite the character's frustrating actions, she remains highly watchable and painfully human.
      By turns hopeful and disturbing, Children of the Mountain is powerful, and will probably give you a few days worth of arguments about the issues it raises.
      Train of Salt and Sugar (Licinio Azevado, 2016)
      Set in Mozambique during the 1977-1992 civil war, the movie concerns the occupants of a rickety old train travelling through rebel-held territory across the border into neighbouring Malawi, where they trade salt for sugar, a precious commodity.  
       While they are constantly harassed by rebel attacks and traps, the major conflict is on the train itself, between the passengers who just want to get home, and the soldiers, who see the passengers as little better than the rebels outside.
      The cast are all great. Melanie de Vales Rafael (playing the young nurse Rosa), Matamba Joaquim (the sympathetic Lt. Taiar), Thiago Justino (playing the macho, psychopathic soldier Ensign Salomão) are probably the standouts, but even the smaller parts, like the train engineers, have moments to shine. It helps that all of the cast are complete unknowns -- it's refreshing to go into a movie with no idea about who anyone is playing, and who could die.
      Technically, the movie is the strongest of the three I saw. Licinio Azevado's direction is very good. He makes good, dynamic use of the main location. If you pay attention, you'll note that he keeps the perspective locked to the area around the train -- we never see events from the rebels' point of view. The viewer is as anchored to the train as the people on it. It's understated, solid story-focused direction that will hopefully get him more attention. This kind of craftsmanship is rarely prized these days, and so it's always a pleasure to see it onscreen.

      A solid, unpretentious genre picture, The Train of Salt and Sugar manages to be about something without descending into didactic-ism. That it does so while juggling some seriously dark drama and some lashings of humour is a testament to great filmmaking and a terrific ensemble cast. Check it out.

      Monday, 10 April 2017

      AFS Screening: The Hitch-Hiker

      Usually my modus operandi with picking Auckland Film Society screenings is to pick movies I have never seen before. I made an exception in this case -- I saw this film about five years ago  but I could not remember anything about it.

      The Hitch-Hiker is the most famous film directed by Hollywood film star Ida Lupino. Critically re-evaluated since her death,  Lupino is now better known as one of the major female directors during Hollywood's golden era. Her other films include Outrage (1950), the second Hollywood film to deal seriously with the issue of rape, and The Bigamist (1953), a sensitive, understated story about a man and his two unknowing spouses. The Hitch-Hiker holds the distinction of being the only classic film noir made by a woman.

      Two friends, Roy (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy) go on a road trip from California to Mexico for a fishing trip. Their journey takes a turn for the worse when they pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be serial killer Emmett Myers (William Talman). Myers hijacks the vehicle and demands that they drive him south. While the authorities scramble to find them, Roy and Gilbert try to find a way out of their predicament before the unstable Hitch-Hiker loses interest in keeping them alive...

      At a neat 71 minutes, The Hitch-Hiker is a little marvel. Like one of my favourite noirs, The Narrow Margin, this little B-movie packs a hell of a lot into its short running time. Within ten minutes, we have been introduced to our main characters and the plot has been initiated.

      Based on a true story, The Hitch-Hiker is a late entry in the cycle of 'realistic' crime films like The House on 92nd Street, Panic in the Streets and The Naked City -- although it lacks the documentary-style aesthetic of those films. In contrast to the popular image of noir, a good deal of the film's action takes place in the daytime.

      Lupino's direction is great. The movie is shot and cut in a very dynamic but straightforward style. The movie is paced well, and she finds ways to make every scene visually interesting, but without drawing attention to the style. It's classic studio continuity filmmaking and Lupino directs like an old pro.

      The highlight, in terms of direction and impact, is the finale. Having secured a boat to make his getaway, Myers leads his hostages along a shadowy pier. Unbeknownst to the trio, the police have been alerted to his move and are lying in weight to ambush them. Using chiaroscuro and extremely detailed sound design (with no music, thankfully), it is an extremely tense and atmospheric sequence.

      The performances by the main actors are all great -- Lovejoy and O'Brien were not stars, but they were great character actors who make for an extremely relatable pair of average joes in over their heads.

        O'Brien in particular stands out for his building resentment toward their captor. The scene where he breaks down at the hopelessness of their predicament is heart-breaking, even with the inappropriate music sting that punctuates his outburst. O'Brien has always been one of my favourite actors from this period (if you haven't, check out his lead performance as a dying man hunting for the men who killed him in 1950's existential nightmare DOA).

        Talman is rather striking as the villain. One eye permanently half-open, he certainly looks deranged, and his performance is effective for the most part. There's something a bit stilted about him that never made him feel as threatening as he could be. The presence of O'Brien immediately made me think of DOA, in which he has to contend with a psychotic gangster played by Neville Brand. Brand played his role like an over-aged kid, hyperactive and sadistic, which feels more like the character as described in The Hitch-Hiker. Talman comes across as too old and traditionally sinister, which makes the character feel a little neutered.

        A few words about the screening experience. The release we watched was the Blu-ray release. It was generally pretty good, but there were some very noticeable sound drop-outs, and a few places where the film was obviously damaged. As far as the movie itself goes, the only flaw is the intrusive music score which detracted from the tension in certain sequences.
        But those are minor niggles. The Hitch-Hiker is a terrific example of classic noir, a forerunner of all your favourite road suspense pictures (Duel, The Hitcher, and Road Games), and a great entry point to the work of one of classic Hollywood's most undervalued talents.

        Previous AFS reviews

        Purple Noon (2015)

        The Servant 

        Eyes Without A Face 

        Night of the Demon (2016)

        Grand Central

        Tales of Hoffman

        Sunday, 9 April 2017

        BAD MOVIE JAMBOREE: Colombiana (Oliver Megaton, 2011)

        Netflix is good at three things: TV shows, documentaries, and shitty action movies. One of those is Luc Besson's spiritual sequel to his 1994 classic Leon (The Professional), Colombiana.

        Sadly, Besson did not direct this movie. He only produced and co-wrote (with Robert Mark Kamen) the flick, leaving the directorial reins to one Oliver Megaton.

        I hate Olivier Megaton -- he is a terrible director. He tanked the Transporter and Taken franchises, and he almost kills this one as well. He offers a good lesson in the importance of shot choice, editing, pacing and basically every fundamental of continuity story-telling. So going into this, my expectations were low.

        I cannot believe I'm writing this, but I ended up kinda enjoying Colombiana.

        The opening sequences, featuring a young Catalyna (Amandla Stenberg) are the best part of the movie. In the space of ten minutes, she witnesses her parents murder, stabs a man through the hand, swears vengeance, does parkour and escapes to America where she demands her uncle teach her how to be 'a killer'.

        In its blunt straightforwardness, it is one of the most unintentionally hilarious things I've seen in a long time. It's so insanely economical it reminded me of the similarly simple-minded Commando.  Sadly, once the movie shifts to the modern day, the movie never quite reaches the same level of gleeful idiocy again.

        The movie does boast some other chuckles, mostly around accents and props. Colombiana is filled to the brim with French actors doing their best attempts at American accents -- the actors playing the cops in the beginning are also burdened with attempting a southern twang. It's real bad. The best person doing an accent is Cliff Curtis as Colombiana's 'Latino' uncle, which shows you how low the bar is. The accents are about as good as the newspapers, which are the most fake props I've seen in a while. They look like something a 12 year old could mock up on their laptop. The set dressing on the whole feels the same way -- it's like watching an unfinished version of The Sims.

        As you can expect, the action sequences are Megaton's bette noir, but some of them make it out relatively unscathed. The best is the jail assassination attempt; the worst is the final showdown, particularly the bathroom fight, which features Megaton's trademark over-cutting.

        In its favour, the movie does feature one emotional beat that worked: As Catalyna/Colombiana's parents make their last stand against the villains, Megaton focuses on the young girl's traumatised face. It actually got to me. For a brief moment, Megaton restrains his normal instincts. Too bad he could not display the same tact with the rest of the film.

        It helps that most of the key players are all good actors. Saldana is good, although she does not have a lot of room to give her character much of a personality -- aside from a scene where she celebrates a successful hit by dancing around her massive loft. She also sucks lollipops while cleaning her guns. Since this is an action movie and she's not a guy, we also get a scene where she has to escape her hideout without having time to change.

        Totally not gratuitous

        Curtis is really good as her uncle, although the role does not give him much to do. Michael Vartan from Alias shows up as her boyfriend. Really nothing more to say than that. The villains are completely interchangeable, and don't really do anything. They don't have a master plan beyond hiding.

        On top of directorial incompetence, the whole film feels underwritten. If you told me Luc Besson wrote this movie on the back of a napkin, I would believe you. The villains exist to be shot, Colombiana exists to shoot them, and the other characters exist to pad the movie out to feature length. Most modern-day action movies suffer from being over-complicated; Colombiana feels the opposite.

        It has the makings of a great drinking game, but ultimately Colombiana is a poor vehicle for the talented Saldana, here's hoping someone else finds her an action flick more worthy of her considerable talents.

        Previous reviews


        Tuesday, 4 April 2017

        AFS Screening: The Hidden Fortress

        The Midnight Ramble's reviews of this year's Auckland Film Society screenings continue with Akira Kurosawa's classic 1958 film Hidden Fortress.

        In feudal Japan, the Akizuki clan has suffered a catastrophic defeat to their rivals, the Yamana clan. Two peasants who fought for the clan are trying to get back home when they get roped in by a general who is trying to get the Akizuki princess through enemy territory to safety.

        Broad statement about this movie: it is frigging awesome. Second broad statement: Toshiro Mifune is a badass.

        This is the first time I have ever seen it, and it is a delight. It's 139 minutes long, but you never feel it. Terrifically paced, with a great sense of tension and comedy, The Hidden Fortress is one of the best action movies I have ever seen. I'm using a lot of hyperbole, but The Hidden Fortress is that good.
        As the charismatic General Rokurota Makabe, Toshiro Mifune is on great form. He gets some great scenes , including a horse chase in which he engages in a sword fight with another rider, and a duel with a rival general in front of his entire army. He's so cool and awesome at everything that you wonder how he managed to lose the war.

        Misa Uehara plays the princess he has to protect, although she does not really get a lot to do. She has to play mute for a large portion of the runtime, although she does rescue a captured Akizuki girl who has been sold into slavery.

        Aside from Mifune, the standout members of the cast are Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara as (respectively) the two peasants Tahei and Matashichi.

        The Hidden Fortress is often highlighted as one of the key influences on the original Star Wars (1977), and you can definitely see echoes in the premise, and a few of the characters, but the similarities are fairly broad. The two peasants bear almost no resemblance to the droids -- they are both terrified of getting into scraps, and are always on the look out for get-rich-quick schemes, which inevitably blow up in their faces.

        Having characters like these two as the focal point grounds the drama more than if it had just been about the general and the princess. Their characters are cooler and smarter, but they are not as immediately relatable, and Tahei and Matashichi's plight is the source of the movie's best scenes.

        The tone of this movie is very hard to pin down, swinging between slapstick humour and brutal action. Kurosawa's direction is perfectly attuned to keep both of these tones in balance. He manages to juggle broad comedy while never undermining the tenor of the threat the group is under. Even as our peasant heroes stumble into trouble, the humour is always uneasy. The Yamana clan are always at their backs, and Kurosawa puts our ragtag heroes through their paces with a series of unexpected obstacles.

        If you've seen it before, watch it again. If you haven't seen it yet, watch it. With its mix of comedy and drama, it is the grandfather of every buddy action movie you can think of.

        Previous AFS reviews

        Purple Noon (2015)

        The Servant 

        Eyes Without A Face 

        Night of the Demon (2016)

        Grand Central

        Tales of Hoffman

        A New Leaf (2017)

        Monday, 3 April 2017

        BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Smoking' Aces (Joe Carnahan, 2006)

        I remember seeing the poster for this movie around Christmas, 2006. I don't remember if it came out in New Zealand, but I didn't get to see it until it was on home video.

        The premise is simple. A dying drug kingpin has taken out a hit on upstart wiseguy Buddy 'Aces'  Israel (Jeremy Piven), which leads to a mad scramble as various parties move in to either kill or protect him.

        Boy does this movie go downhill. When it starts, it's basically the movie you thought you were getting: an r-rated version of It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. But then in the third act, it takes a sudden shift into straight drama and all the excitement dies away -- it's like two-thirds Tarantino, one-third mawkish bullshit.

        The tonal shift is all wrong, and the message of making sacrifices count feels completely unearned.

        The best part of the movie is Taraji P. Henson. I remember seeing the poster and zooming in Alicia Keys, but in watching the movie all I could focus on was Henson. One half of a pair of female assassins sent after Aces, she plays Sharice Watters. An outspoken lesbian feminist with an eye on her colleague Georgia Sykes (Keys), Sharice lives in hope that her friend will finally see the light. She's basically Duckie (Pretty in Pink)  with a 50 calibre.

        Henson is great in almost everything I've seen her in, and she carries her small part of the movie like a pro. I still have no idea if Alicia Keys can act, but with Henson doing the heavy lifting, it doesn't matter. It's too bad Henson is not in the movie more -- Watters is a far more sympathetic character than most of the ensemble cast.

        In fact, anchoring the movie around Watters and Sykes would have probably been a better vehicle for getting at that dramatic meat that Carnahan tries to force down our throats. Ultimately, Smokin' Aces is a misfire. It has its moments, but it is like a puzzle missing a few pieces -- it does not add up.