CASINO JACK: The Film Babble Blog Review

CASINO JACK (Dir. George Hickenloper, 2011)

In his portrayal of lobbyist/businessman/sleazebag Jack Abramoff, Kevin Spacey busts out a lot of celebrity impressions. He does Walter Matthau, Al Pacino, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton among others, but while his mimicry is dead on, his performance as Abramoff never quite convinces.

Especially if you’ve seen last year’s Alex Gibney directed documentary CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY which this film is based on.

Also since Spacey has played incredibly similar slick-talking salesman types roles in films like SWIMMING WITH SHARKS, THE BIG KAHUNA, and HURLYBURLY, he is unable to capture a distinct characterization here.

But it simply may be because Spacey is miscast.

An actor doesn’t have to resemble the real life person they are cast as in order to inhabit the part (witness Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, Johnny Depp as Ed Wood, or Warren Beatty as Bugsy Siegel to name a few), but Spacey is so far off that the whole project never gels.

Incidentally from much of the footage and photos in the documentary, it looks like Bob Saget would’ve been a better match.

CASINO JACK glosses over a lot of juicy information in charting the downfall of the man that Time Magazine called “the man who bought Washington D.C.” Abramoff’s shady dealings involving Chinese chop shops, Native-American casinos, cruise ships, and political fraud on a massive level are best covered by Gibney’s film, as crammed with unnecessary graphics as it is.

Here with Spacey living it up on the way down joined by a wonderfully scummy Jon Lovitz (one of the movie’s highlights) as a disbarred lawyer with mob connections, and Barry Pepper as Spacey’s associate partner-in-crime, there’s a creepy feeling that the film wants us to be on Abramoff’s side.

It’s well known that Abramoff was movie obsessed and often quoted classic films, but when Spacey delivers his impeccable impressions (that you just know that Abramoff could never come close to) it makes the man too likable and distracts from the seriousness of the man’s corrupt actions.

So in conclusion, if you want to see the story of the real Jack Abramoff – see Gibney’s dense yet fascinating doc CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY (available on Netflix Instant by the way).

But if you want a flashy Kevin Spacey showcase that over simplifies the historical record for the sake of cheap laughs then CASINO JACK is the one for you.

More later…

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dir. Grant Heslov, 2009)

“More of this is true than you would believe” so says a disclaimer of sorts at the beginning of this film. Also the film isn’t “based on” it’s “inspired by the book” which is another nifty indicator that this is as loosely based on real events as possible. So in their adaptation the film makers decided to follow John Ford’s advice and “print the legend” with this absurd exploration of a secret paranormal army program based on hippy New Age concepts that most likely didn’t exist. “Or did it?” they want us to ask as we leave the theater but it doesn’t dig deep enough to actually bring that question to mind for the project just skates on the surface of craziness, never cracking the ice.

Not to say it isn’t a worthwhile movie – it’s well crafted with good performances by Ewan McGregor as a down on his luck journalist who stumbles upon these psychic spies, George Clooney as one of the top men of the unique unit who considers himself a Jedi warrior (we get to see him kill a goat with his mind – hence the title), and, best of all, Jeff Bridges as a very Dude like intelligence officer who may have taken his training too far. As an adversary Kevin Spacey has a one-note role but it’s a necessary well played note that happily won’t bring smug crap like K-PAX (also with Bridges) back to mind – ‘cept that I just did because I’m sadistic like that.

McGregor forms an unlikely friendship with Clooney crossing the desert of Kuwait as frequent flashbacks fill in the convoluted back-story. There is a busy narrative but it’s not very strong as the film seems to go in circles in its second half. Regardless Clooney crony Heslov (he co-wrote GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK) gets a good visual vibe going with amusing Wes Anderson style montages and swift set pieces. With stronger material Heslov is sure to hit a home run on a future project.

Funny but not hilarious, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS is a likable lark that won’t make my best of the year list but I can see stopping on it when clicking through cable channels sometime down the line. I bet I’ll think the same then – that Clooney and Co. were shooting for DR. STRANGELOVE and they got SPIES LIKE US. They should still rejoice though for there are far worse fates.

More later…

New DVDs – REDBELT, RECOUNT, & BABY MAMA (for reals!)

Time to take a break from the big screen and review some new release DVDs – all with quick easy titles! So here goes it:

REDBELT (Dir. David Mamet, 2008)

A David Mamet Martial arts movie, well, how about that! Actually, since Mamets films usually offer double-talking con artists scoring a scam, the seedy world of strong armed prize-competitions is a perfect fit. Chiwetel Ejiofor, working his worry-lines particularly this one popping vein on his forehead, is a jujitsu master and self defense instructor who lives by a moral code and has perfected a new strategy. Which is, to determine the fight, Ejiofor explains with three marbles: Each fighter has a two-in-three odds of chosing a white marble. White marble’s a pass and that the black marble is a handicap meaning the fighter loses the use of his arms. He considers this his training method trademark despite its historical precedent and it is grifted from him by the business that is show – a movie star (a gruff thick Tim Allen) and his film production cronies and a big league televised championship. Other pressures mount with his nagging wife (Alice Braca) bitchin bout huge debts, a frazzled lawyer (Emily Mortimer) who accidentely shoots out the window of Ejiofors studio with a cops gun, a hot wrist-watch that competes with the marble method to be the films meta-MacGuffin. There is always an escape” Ejiofor often states though it gets so dicey you doubt whether he believes it.

Mamets trusty regulars Joe Montegna, Ricky Jay (stiffer than usual but still effective), and Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamets wife) all do their wicked best with the barbed wordings while curiously crafted fight choreography marks the set pieces. Along with the surpisingly deft Tim Allen (atoning for WILD HOGS I hope) the always affable David Paymer has a brief bit as a loan shark and look for Jennifer Grey (DIRTY DANCING) in a nothing part as Montegnas lady-friend. Ejiofor is the one to watch though; he carries every scene with a gravitas only hinted at in previous works like DIRTY PRETTY THINGS and AMERICAN GANGSTER. His sparring both with his fellow thespians in tense talks and in the ring is engrossing. REDBELT isnt Mamets best film (thats GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS IMHO) but it is meticulous and gloriously manipulative in many pleasurable ways. It’s a thinking mans Martial arts movie that, for all the abrasiveness of its characters plans, has a careful respectful grace that so much modern drama is missing.

RECOUNT (Dir. Jay Roach, 2008)

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And then theres that little known third category.
– Al Gore

This HBO telefilm tells an all too familliar tale – the maddening election result fiasco that was the Bush/Gore Presidential campaign of 2000. No need to worry about any Spoilers here – everyone knows how this turned out but what makes this compelling and essential is the devil in the details. A solid cast staffs both sides of the debate – Kevin Spacey, Dennis Leary, and Ed Begley Jr. in the Democratic corner facing off Tom Wilkinson, Bob Babalan, and Bruce McGill as the rebuking Republicans. Laura Dern as Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris is the icing on an already very tast cake. As Warren Christopher, John Hurt makes a much more striking note (described by Leary as “so tight he probably eats his M&Ms with a knife and fork”) than he did in the whole of that last Indiana Jones flick.

The real star here is the story though – biased towards the Democrats as one would figure and fudging with some minor facts aside, the topsy turvy twists of the road to the White House turned me inside-out with some of the same feelings I had when the real thing was happening getting stirred up. I got so into the frustrating back and forth that I thought it was again possible for Gore to win only to have to take a big bite of a stale reality sandwich. Sigh.

Except for archival footage and some over the shoulder shots we never see Gore or Bush, we just hear their voices on phones or see doubles at a distance and this was a good decision. The meat of the matter was those toiling beneath them epitomized by Spacey’s part as Gore’s former Chief Of Staff. Klain was actually fired from his position but still came to work on the campaign and then the recount commitee. Spacey brings his usual slick glide to the role which can be annoying in films like BEYOND THE SEA (actually everything was annoying in that movie) and THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE (ditto) but it works wonders with such lines as “the plural of ‘chad’ is ‘chad’?” Leary pretty much hammers down his standard schtick but his jaded cynical demeanor is definitely necessary considering.

Like many I’ve never really gotten over the 2000 election. It was one of the most disappointing and devastating events of my lifetime. That a lot of the mitigating factors haven’t completely been resolved is very troubling in light of the upcoming election. There’s a lot to recommend about RECOUNT but the most vital message it contains can be summed up by the words of poet George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. While I don’t think we’ll ever forget this story, I still fear it may be repeated.

(Dir. Michael McCullers, 2008)

Former SNL head writer and currently the star of 30 Rock (which she also created and writes) Tina Fey never appeared to aspire to motion picture leading lady status. My role model is Harold Ramis she told Time Magazine in an interview when promoting MEAN GIRLS. She went on: I want to sneak into movies. I have no pretensions of thinking people will pay to see me. Well, this was #1 at the box office its opening weekend (I know that doesn’t necessarily mean hit – i.e. BANGKOK DANGEROUS) so plenty did pay to see her but I didnt. Mainly because the lame looking clips on the commercials – I mean, did anyone bits like Fey getting mad at Amy Poehler for sticking gum under her prized coffee table were that funny? Well, nothing here is that funny. This is light comedy – a rom com that was marketed as a crude offensive Farrelly brothers type affair.

Fey is a 37 year old career woman who one day wakes up and wants a baby. She is told by a doctor (John Hodgman – the PC guy from those get a Mac ads) that the chances of her getting pregnant are one in a million so she looks into adoption but is discouraged by the long waiting list. The idea of employing a surrogate mother pulls her in and before long she is set up with Amy Poehler as a white trash loon. Poehler and Fey have worked together a lot so they have a great clashing chemistry but the tone here is too comfortable to really take off. It does contain a good cast with appearances by SNL folk (Will Forte, Fred Armisen, Siobhan Fallon), a mildly amusing performance by Steve Martin as Fey’s pony-tailed new agey boss, Sigourney Weaver being a good sport about aging jokes as the surrogacy firm head who boasts about conceiving naturally, and Greg Kinnear as a smarmy but charming possible love interest for Fey.

The problem is that it’s all too light and trivial. Poehler could have really gone somewhere with her crusty character, there are hints of that when she’s going into labor and freaking out in a hospital hallway: It feels like Im shitting a knife! but director/writer McCullers (also a former SNL alumni) seems to have decided to play one tone and never vere far from its self imposed sentiment. Still, Fey and Poehler have their moments and its nice to see a quasi-smart comedy involving the needs of women protagonists thats not trying to fake sincerity. Its small success will, with hope, give them the chance to try for something that has more teeth and will really leave more of a mark than this.

More later…

Superman Reboots

Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) : But millions will die!
Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) : Billions! Once again, the press underestimates me.
(Dir. Bryan Singer 2006)

SUPERMAN RETURNS is one of the only Summer blockbusters I was interested in seeing (don’t really care as much for PIRATES or X-MEN) and I’m happy to say it didn’t disappoint. Its no SPIDERMAN by any means but its a highly enjoyable piece of pop art that stands up with the first 2 movies. When I originally heard that this project over a decade in the making was going to be based in the world of the 1978 SUPERMAN : THE MOVIE right down to the resemblance of Brandon Routh to Christopher Reeve and the appearance of Marlon Brando in old outtake footage needless to say I was a bit worried – I mean the recent TV shows LOIS AND CLARK and SMALLVILLE (both of which I’ve never regularly watched) created new modern premises and styles to house the Superman legend so why wasn’t this return going to be its own new thing?

It turns out that the retro-lets-pick-up-the-story-as-if-SUPERMAN 3 & 4 (no need to link to these attrocities) never happened is the best thing about SUPERMAN RETURNS. The John Williams theme still has majestic power and the epic tone is fully revived. Kevin Spacey is a suitable replacement for Gene Hackman as Luther though his new land scheme plan is a bit silly. Nice casting abounds – Kate Bosworth, Parker Posey, and Frank Lagella are all spot on. The film is dedicated to both Reeve and his wife Dana which like just about everything else I’ve mentioned is a nice touch.

More later…