Wrestling Alligators


And bingo was his game-o.

And bingo was his game-o.

(2016) Documentary (Seventh Art) James Billie, Peter Gallagher, Jeff Testerman, Tim Cox, Bruce Rogow, Max Osceola, Dr. Patricia Wickman, David Cordish, Howard Tommie, Patsy West, Robert Butterworth, Jim Allen, Maria Lorts Sachs, Dr. Katherine Spidel. Directed by Andrew Shea

Florida Film Festival 2016

When people think of Native Americans, often we look to the stereotypes that we receive from Hollywood. We picture them on their reservations, putting on shows for tourists and living in abject poverty. To a certain extent, that has been true although that’s no longer the case for many tribes, including the Seminole tribe of Florida (where this reviewer lives currently).

The members of the Seminole tribe are well off now, receiving an impressive income and that prosperity can be traced back to their current chairman James E. Billie. Once an outcast in the tribe because of his half-Caucasian parentage, he scraped a living by wrestling alligators for tourists and got to be quite good at it. But it wasn’t enough for him.

He went to Vietnam to fight for his country and became well-respected by his fellow soldiers. He came back to Florida after his service to work construction, building chickees (traditional Seminole lodges) among other activities. The charismatic Billie took an interest in tribal politics, first serving on the tribal Council before being elected Chairman in 1979.

Under his stewardship, he opened up a bingo parlor on tribal land (an idea first proposed by the previous tribal chairman, Howard Tommie) which he eventually would convert into a full casino. Despite challenges from the State of Florida which felt that gaming regulations for the State superseded tribal rights, the Supreme Court disagreed and an industry was born.

The Seminoles were the first to open up a major casino on tribal land and their revenue by 2007 had exceeded $1 billion from not only their gaming enterprises but also cattle raising (they are the 12th largest cattle operation in the country) and other tribal ventures. Billie is largely responsible for making the tribe a major economic and political force not only in Florida but in America as well.

As such, he can be viewed as an authentic American hero. No other Native leader in the past 50 years has done more for his tribe than James Billie has for the Seminoles. That isn’t to say that he has always been popular even with his own tribe; in 2001 a financial scandal forced him out of the chairman’s position, although he was later exonerated from any wrongdoing. In 2011, he was re-elected tribal chairman and holds that position to this day; not even a 2012 stroke has slowed him down.

In addition to his business ventures, Billie is an accomplished musician, performing with a group called the Shack Daddies in a style of music he describes as swamp rock; he also has had an impressive solo career, garnering a Grammy nomination in 1999 for the song “Big Alligator” on the Alligator Tears album. He performs several songs in the film and has a pleasant, soothing voice.

This is a movie a long time coming. I hadn’t realized what a larger than life character James Billie was until I saw this movie and it only made me think “Why has nobody made a movie about this guy before now?” His charisma and energy are boundless and his passion for his tribe, their traditions and their well-being shine through. Much of the income from the casinos (the tribe in 2007 bought the Hard Rock Café chain and now owns seven different casinos along with several resorts and the restaurant chain) has been funneled back into the tribe, building schools, hospital and an infrastructure that would be the envy of any community.

The movie works whenever it concentrates on its main character; certainly there are other narrations going on here which tend to get a little bit dry and when you compare the other interviewees to Billie, it’s almost unfair because few people can really hold up to his natural force as a human being.

Billie is not really well-known to the general public outside of Florida and even within his own state; I can’t say I was really familiar with his accomplishments and I live here. The movie serves though to introduce the viewer to a man they should really get to know. I have to say that James Billie has joined an exclusive list in my own personal life for what it’s worth as a man to admire and try to emulate. I don’t know how the Seminole chairman feels about being a role model – he seems to be the sort of man that doesn’t take himself terribly seriously – but there are certainly not many out there who would be better ones.

REASONS TO GO: Billie is a larger than life character who fills up the screen.
REASONS TO STAY: A little dry in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity is occasionally uttered.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Andre Shea also has a law degree.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crooked Arrow
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Kill Your Friends

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