Casino Jack


Casino Jack

Even though Kevin Spacey is calling to verify, Barry Pepper looks skeptical that he’s got 250 pounds in that weight.

(2010) Biodrama (ATO) Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz, Conrad Pla, Christian Campbell, Yannick Bisson, Spencer Garrett, Hannah Endicott-Douglas, David Fraser, Graham Greene, Maury Chaykin, Stephen Chambers, Rachelle Lefevre. Directed by George Hickenlooper

We grew up thinking that American politics were relatively corruption-free, compared to other countries. That politicians would vote their conscience and while not necessarily paragons of virtue, were at least not for sale. How wrong we were.

Jack Abramoff (Spacey) was one o the most powerful lobbyists in Washington. He had some of the most powerful men in the world on speed dial; he could get men elected or doom their campaigns. His alliance with Native American casinos helped liberalize the laws that allowed them to flourish. An orthodox Jew, he helped fund Jewish community centers and education facilities and was a pillar of his community.

Jack and his partner Michael Scanlon (Pepper) lived high on the hog, funneling the money from Indian casinos into the pockets of politicians, with a certain amount remaining for themselves in fees. But the two men get greedy, deciding to hire seedy Virginia businessman Adam Kidan (Lovitz) who has ties to mobster Big Tony (Chaykin) to further skim off the top.

When Scanlon’s girlfriend Emily Miller (Lefevre) discovers he’s cheating on her, she starts talking to investigators about the wrongdoing that she’s fully aware of – things that the savvy Abramoff had warned him not to discuss with anyone. Big Tony becomes uneasy and orders a hit on Kidan which fails. Kidan also begins to talk – and the empire around Abramoff begins to crumble.

Director George Hickenlooper was best known for his documentaries – including the acclaimed Heart of Darkness which looked at the troubled production of Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.  He tells his tale here with admirable tautness, taking the brevity of the documentary form and mixing it with the richness of a narrative. Sadly, he passed away less than two months before the film opened in the United States.

This is very much Spacey’s film. For a time after American Beauty, he was perhaps the best actor in Hollywood  with a string of performances that were as good as any body of work for a comparable amount of time in the history of movies. Strong hyperbole I know but you can certainly make an argument for it. However after his Bobby Darin movie, he seemed to move away from the limelight deliberately, opting to spend more time on the stage and mostly confining himself to supporting roles over the past decade or so. This is his best performance in years, taking Abramoff – a very complex human being – and humanizing him. We see his manic, compulsive side and his tender, giving side sometimes within moments of one another. Kelly Preston plays his wife and the two have a pretty decent chemistry going.

One of the things that I really liked about this movie is that you really see how lobbying works in the political system. I also admire the courage of the filmmakers in naming names and pointing fingers. There are no punches pulled; those that were involved with Abramoff are portrayed here, either with actors or in documentary footage of the Senate hearing which is weaved in masterfully with the re-created footage. Spacey has a moment where he harangues the Senators passing judgment on him, reminding them that most of them took money from him for their campaigns. This all occurs in his head, of course – in reality Abramoff has been relatively charitable towards his accusers.

This makes a fine companion piece to the documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money which portrays Abramoff in a less sympathetic light, preferring to opine that he was symptomatic of the corruption and arrogance in the Republican party. Hickenlooper doesn’t make such indications, pointing out that this is a political problem that doesn’t belong to a single party (which of course it doesn’t). The real Jack Abramoff actually is leading the fight against lobbying following his release from his prison sentence. Perhaps to atone for his own actions, he remains a zealot dedicated to changing how politics work.

This was characterized as the worst political scandal since Watergate and yet it passed through the American consciousness like a Kardashian sex tape. In fact, it would be fair to say the Kardashians got more notice than the Abramoff trial. It involved some of the top figures in the George W. Bush White House, resulted in the indictment and conviction of a U.S. Congressman (Bob Ney) and in Abramoff’s fall from grace. What it should have done was prompt a re-examination of the role of lobbyists in the political structure but it is business as usual in Washington. That’s perhaps the most tragic aspect of this whole sordid affair.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Spacey’s best performances in the last five years. A sobering look at how lobbyists are subverting the political process.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The foul language is pretty much non-stop. There is a bit of sexuality involved as well as a little nudity, and some brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed with the digital Red One Camera in Canada utilizing blue screen technology with characters filmed in Canada projected onto backgrounds filmed in Washington and Miami.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a gag reel but not much else.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $12M production budget; this wasn’t a box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: True Colors

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT:More of the American Experience

New Releases for the Week of January 28, 2011


January 28, 2011
Bless me father, for I have sinned…

THE RITE

(New Line) Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, Alice Braga, Ciaran Hinds, Rutger Hauer, Toby Jones, Marta Gastini, Chris Marquette. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom

A skeptical seminary student is assigned to exorcism school at the Vatican in Rome despite his disbelief in the devil. He is introduced to an unorthodox priest, one who is a veteran in the war against evil who ultimately introduces him to the reality of faith; if you believe in the goodness of God, then you must understand that there is its opposite – evil personified. The young student, so well-versed in the practical, must find his faith in the spiritual or else be condemned to burn in the fires of Hell.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material, violence, frightening images and language including sexual references)

 
Another Year

(Sony Classics) Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Ruth Sheen. The latest from acclaimed director Mike Leigh examines the relationship of a middle-aged couple through the seasons of their life through triumphs and tragedies, as chronicled by the presence of friends who use the couple as confidantes to their own issues.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard,

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some language)

Biutiful

(Roadside Attractions) Javier Bardem, Maricel Alvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella. A career criminal in the Barcelona underworld discovers he has a fatal disease. Devoted to his small children, he struggles to find a way to secure their future while suffering from the effects of his illness and staving off the inherent dangers of his chosen career.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical Drama

Rating: R (for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use)

Blue Valentine

(Weinstein) Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Mike Vogel, John Dornan. A couple whose marriage is crumbling makes one last desperate attempt to rescue their relationship in a single night. As memories of their courtship color their perceptions of one another, they find refuge in sex and violence which may ultimately be their salvation – or their destruction.

See the trailer, clips and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Drama

Rating: R (for strong graphic sexual content, language and a beating)

Casino Jack

(ATO) Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz. The final film of the late George Hickenlooper (a much-respected filmmaker), it chronicles the doings and dealings of Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who was convicted of financial misdeeds concerning Native American casinos and a cast of characters that even Hollywood couldn’t possibly dream up.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and brief nudity)

The Company Men

(Weinstein) Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper. Three executives are laid off as a result of corporate downsizing. All of them, defined by their success and standing in the corporate world, are forced to redefine themselves, learning to take control of their own lives and adopt more lasting terms of self-definition.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and brief nudity)

Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries)

(UTV Communications) Aamir Khan, Prateik Babbar, Monica Dogra, Kriti Malhotra. An affluent investment banker taking a sabbatical strikes up a friendship with a laundry boy, which even in modern Mumbai is just not done. As the relationship deepens, a friendship with a gifted painter threatens to throw both their worlds into disarray.

See the trailer and featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: NR

The Mechanic

(CBS) Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Donald Sutherland, Tony Goldwyn. A highly skilled assassin is employed by a “company” who then sends them on assignments. When the assassin’s mentor is killed by the company, the assassin takes on his son to teach him the skills of the trade. Together they are going to go after the corrupt elements in the company – if the bosses don’t get to them first. Loosely based on a Charles Bronson movie of the same name.

See the trailer, clips, promos and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action Thriller

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence throughout, language, some sexual content and nudity)

Four-Warned: October 2010


October 2010

Every month I’m going to look at every movie on the release schedule and try to assign them a numerical value corresponding to how anxious I am to see it. The lower the number, the more I want to see it. A one means I would walk through hell and high water to see it; a four means there’s no interest whatsoever. The numbers are not arrived at scientifically but they aren’t arbitrary either.

The numbers aren’t a reflection of the artistic merit of any of these films, but merely a reflection of my willingness to go to a movie theater and see it. The top four scores will be gathered as a means of reflecting the movies I’m anticipating the most; you may use that as a guide or not.
Each entry is broken down as follows:

NAME OF FILM (Studio) Genre A brief description of the plot. Release plans: Wide = Everywhere, Limited = In selected markets. RATING A brief explanation

Keep in mind that release dates are extremely subject to change, even at this late date.

FOUR TO SEE
1. HEREAFTER (1.1)
2. RED (1.3)
3. CONVICTION (1.7)
4. COMPANY MEN (2.0)

FOUR TO SEEK OUT (FILMS NOT IN WIDE RELEASE)
1. MONSTERS (1.1)
2. INSIDE JOB (1.6)
3. TAMARA DREWE (2.3)
4. CASINO JACK (2.4)

RATING SYSTEM: 1) Must-see, 2) Should-see, 3) Perhaps-see, 4) Don’t-see

OCTOBER 1, 2010

BARRY MUNDAY (Magnolia) Genre: Indie Comedy. A would-be ladies man wakes up in the hospital with his testicles missing and must learn to live without them. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.0 Yet another treatise on what it means to be a man, which apparently you can’t be without being emasculated.
CASE 39 (Paramount Vantage) Genre: Horror. A little girl is taken from her abusive parents, only to open the gateway to a whole new kind of horror. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.8 Oft-delayed usually means the movie isn’t very good.
CASH CROP (Sierra) Genre: Documentary. The effects of marijuana growing on California in yet another plea for legalization of the weed. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 4.0 I’m allergic to cannabis; draw your own conclusions.
CASINO JACK (Metropolitan) Genre: Drama. Kevin Spacey stars as Jack Abramoff, a.k.a. Casino Jack, a high-powered Washington lobbyist whose fraudulent activities with Indian Casinos landed him in jail. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.4 Not sure this could be any better than the documentary Casino Jack which was released earlier this year.
CHAIN LETTER (New Films International) Genre: Horror. Teens that break a chain letter are gruesomely murdered. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.9 An interesting new horror concept which thankfully, isn’t being done in a PG-13 version by a big studio.
DOUCHEBAG (Paladin) Genre: Sex Comedy. A bachelor on the eve of getting married insists on finding his younger brother’s fifth grade girlfriend. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.3 Haven’t seen a trailer for this yet but must admit the concept doesn’t float my boat much.
FREAKONOMICS (Magnolia) Genre: Documentary. A team of acclaimed documentarians examine the effects of incentives on human behavior. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.1 Based on the phenomenal bestseller.
HATCHET II (Dark Sky) Genre: Horror. A new victim of the Crowley curse decides to take the fight back to the Louisiana swamps that started it. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.0 The continued comeback of the slasher movie is evidenced here.
IP MAN (Variance) Genre: Martial Arts Biography. The story of Bruce Lee’s teacher and grand master of Wing Chun style kung fu who was forced to fight in one-on-one battles to the death during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.3 Sounds a little bit like Jet Li’s Fearless.
LEAVING (IFC) Genre: Drama. A woman who has raised grown children and has been a model wife for a doctor falls for a Spanish ex-con who has come to remodel her office. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.0 A drama about passion, sex and infidelity? And it’s French? Okay, color me intrigued.
LET ME IN (Relativity) Genre: Horror. A 12-year-old boy who is mercilessly bullied finds a friend in a mysterious little girl who has a secret of her own. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.7 A remake of the Swedish film Let the Right One In has some fans furious but with the director of Cloverfield at the helm, this might be something special after all.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK (Columbia) Genre: Drama. The story of the beginnings of Facebook from a project at Harvard to the worldwide phenomenon it is today. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.9 Not sure about this; there is a lot of critics salivating to see it with David Fincher having directed it, but could be a self-congratulatory mess.

OCTOBER 8, 2010

AS GOOD AS DEAD (First Look) Genre: Thriller. A left wing extremist who murdered the head of a white supremacist group is chased down by the man’s wife and accomplices. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.9 Could be a roller coaster ride or merely depressing.
DOWN TERRACE (Magnet) Genre: Dark Comedy. A small-time crime family is torn apart from within by squabbles between father and son. Release Strategy: New York only. RATING: 3.3 Made the gimmicky move of casting real-life father and son in the leads; makes me wonder.
I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (Anchor Bay) Genre: Horror. A woman brutally raped, tortured and left for dead gets revenge on those who defiled her. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.8 Based on a movie that should have never been remade.
INSIDE JOB (Sony Classics) Genre: Documentary. A look at the causes of the recent global economic meltdown and the not-so-surprising collusion between rogue businessmen, lobby groups, politicians and academics. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.6 Early reviews have this in a two-horse race for Oscar gold.
IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY (Focus) Genre: Dramedy. A teen checks himself into a psychiatric hospital and winds up on the adult wing. Release Strategy: New York /Los Angeles (Opening wide TBA). RATING: 2.7 Based on the trailer, it looks like Zack Galifianakis might be making a pitch for dramatic roles here.
LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB (Olive) Genre: Drama. An ex-con who helps a blind priest answer letters must also assist him with a crisis of faith when the letters stop coming. Release Strategy: New York (Opening in Los Angeles October 15). RATING: 3.3 Not sure about this one having not seen a trailer to it.
LIFE AS WE KNOW IT (Warner Brothers) Genre: Romantic Comedy. When a young married couple is tragically killed, their friends – who don’t like each other much – are tasked with raising their surviving baby. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.6 On the trailer, chemistry between Josh Duhamel and Katharine Heigl looked pretty promising.
MARWENCOL (The Cinema Guild) Genre: Documentary. A man injured in a brutal attack whose insurance will no longer pay for physical therapy turns to a fictional Belgian town he builds out of scrap wood to help him regain his voice. Release Strategy: New York (Opening in Los Angeles November 12). RATING: 2.6 Sounds intriguing; I’m always up for one of those “triumph of the human spirit” documentaries.
MY SOUL TO TAKE (Rogue) Genre: Supernatural Horror. Seven teenagers born on the night of a serial killer’s death are the targets of a mysterious figure. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D). RATING: 2.5 Horror master Wes Craven is back.
NOWHERE BOY (Weinstein) Genre: Musical Biography. An outsider being raised by a dowager aunt in Liverpool goes on to become John Lennon. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.5 Lennon is one of my personal heroes; I’m hoping this does him justice.
RACHEL (Women Make Movies) Genre: Documentary. American peace activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer in 2003; her death was ruled an accident but this documentary calls that ruling into question. Release Strategy: New York only. RATING: 2.9 A story that received very little coverage by the media gets a well-deserved spotlight, even if it is a relatively small one.
SECRETARIAT (Disney) Genre: Sports Biography. The story of a fabled racehorse who overcame incredible odds to become the first Triple Crown winner in 35 years. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.4 I’m a sucker for these types of underdog movies and the trailer looks pretty slick.
STONE (Overture) Genre: Thriller. A prison psychologist upon whom the release of a prison inmate depends is seduced by the inmate’s wife. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.2 A cast of De Niro, Jovovich and Edward Norton is usually enough to get me intrigued, but the trailer left me flat.
TAMARA DREWE (Sony Classics) Genre: Romantic Comedy. A sexy flirt returns to her small English village and wreaks havoc. Release Strategy: New York/Los Angeles. RATING: 2.3 Suddenly-hot Gemma Arterton looks pretty strong in this graphic novel adaptation.
TODAY’S SPECIAL (Reliance MediaWorks) Genre: Comedy. A young sous chef who dreams of opening his own upscale Manhattan restaurant is instead forced to work in his family’s Brooklyn tandoori restaurant. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.7 Indian films and films about Indian culture are beginning to work their way into the mainstream and I couldn’t be happier.

OCTOBER 15, 2010

CARLOS (IFC) Genre: Biography. The story of notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal told by the director of Summer Hours. Release Strategy: New York only. RATING: 3.5 This is truly an epic with a running time of five and a half hours(!)
CONVICTION (Fox Searchlight) Genre: True Drama. A woman fights to get her brother, unjustly convicted of murder, released from prison. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.7 Could be Hilary Swank’s next Oscar nomination.
JACKASS 3D (Paramount) Genre: Comedy – Sort of. Idiots do stupid stunts for the amusement of other idiots. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 4.0 Certainly a sign that mankind wasn’t meant to survive.
RED (Summit) Genre: Action Comedy. A group of retired CIA assassins are being hunted down by modern CIA assassins, so they must regroup and defend themselves. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.5 Helen Mirren with a machine gun? It’s on like Donkey Kong!
SAMSON AND DELILAH (Indiepix) Genre: Romantic Drama. An Australian couple tries to survive in the Outback after a tragedy forces them from their tiny home town. Release Strategy: New York only. RATING: 3.3 Haven’t seen the trailer so not exactly sure what to expect from this.

OCTOBER 22, 2010

COMPANY MEN (Weinstein) Genre: Drama. Three laid off executives must re-define their lives as husbands, fathers and men. Release Strategy: New York/Los Angeles (expands October 29). RATING: 2.0 An impressive cast and a solid trailer put this one solidly on my fall film radar.
HEREAFTER (Warner Brothers) Genre: Supernatural Drama. Matt Damon plays a psychic who can communicate with the dead desperately trying to turn his back on that part of his life. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.1 If Clint Eastwood were directing a driver’s ed video I’d still pay ten bucks to see it.
INHALE (IFC) Genre: Thriller. A man desperately tries to get his dying daughter a lung transplant as the clock ticks inexorably down. Release Strategy: New York only. RATING: 3.0 Sounds interesting but have yet to see a trailer for this.
KALAMITY (Original 4 Releasing) Genre: Suspense Thriller. A heartbroken man returns home to Virginia to find his best friend acting increasingly bizarre and frightening. Release Strategy: New York only. RATING: 3.5 Sounds okay but again no trailer and I have the funny feeling I’ve seen this before.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 (Paramount) Genre: Supernatural Horror. Home video captures disturbing occurrences in a family household. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.7 The first film, made for $15,000 grossed more than $150 million; you had to know a sequel was coming.

OCTOBER 26, 2010

NICE GUY JOHNNY (Marlboro Road Gang) Genre: Comedy. The last of the honest men is taken out by his womanizing uncle for one last fling before he gets married. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.5 Edward Burns is a gifted actor and director; I’m intrigued to see what he’s come up with.

OCTOBER 29, 2010

MONSTERS (Magnet) Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller/Horror. An interstellar probe carrying alien DNA crash lands in Mexico, mutating the local flora and fauna; a reporter and a tourist struggle to survive the now-quarantined zone. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.1 Great concept and the trailer looks awesome.
NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (Seven Arts) Genre: Supernatural Horror. Young partiers spend Halloween in a haunted New Orleans mansion. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.1 Could be really good or could be an exercise in clichés.
SAW 3D (Lionsgate) Genre: Horror/Torture Porn. The last film in the series will also be the first in 3D as survivors of Jigsaw’s deadly traps convene, only to realize one of them has their own agenda. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D). RATING: 3.4 I liked the first film but haven’t really liked any since.
WILD TARGET (Freestyle Releasing) Genre: Comedy Thriller. An assassin sent to murder a con artist falls in love with her instead. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.8 Bill Nighy is one of my favorite actors at the moment.

SCHEDULED TO BE REVIEWED HERE AS NEW RELEASES
The Social Network, Let Me In, Buried, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Life As We Know It, Nowhere Boy, Secretariat, Conviction, Red, Hereafter, Company Men