Shattered Politics #86: Casino Jack (dir by George Hickenlooper)


Casino_JackI had two reactions to the 2010 film Casino Jack.

My first reaction was to think, “Wow, Kevin Spacey really can act!”  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  I knew that, especially when working with a director who is strong enough to curb his natural tendency to go overboard, Kevin Spacey was capable of giving a great performance.  However, Spacey is one of those actors who has such a unique look and style about him that I think sometimes we forget that he’s capable of doing more than just playing variations on Kevin Spacey.*

And it is true that, in the role of real-life Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Kevin Spacey gave a performance that was full of the usual Spacey tricks.  By that, I mean we got the Spacey voice going from a purr to a roar in just a manner of seconds.  We got the Spacey glare, where he narrows his eyes and stares at whoever has offended him with an intensity that lets you know that something bad is about to happen.  We got that somewhat strained Kevin Spacey smile, the way facial expression that lets us know that we don’t want to know what’s going on behind that friendly facade.

But, even though Spacey was up to his usual tricks, all of those tricks still came together to create a unique character.  As I watched the film, I forgot that I was watching Kevin Spacey.  Instead, I really felt that I was watching and listening to one of the most powerful lobbyists in American history.

And, when Abramoff was eventually arrested and prosecuted for defrauding his clients, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of sympathy for him.  Spacey plays the character with such a combination of hyperactive charm and righteous fury that you can’t help but be a little bit enthralled by him.  That’s not to say that Kevin Spacey turns Jack Abramoff into a sympathetic character.  (Indeed, as good as Spacey is, there are a few moments when his contempt for Abramoff comes through and his performance suddenly turns into a one-dimensional caricature.)  But what Spacey does do is show that Jack Abramoff was less an inhuman monster and more the logical product of Washington culture.  The only difference between Abramoff and everyone else in Washington is that Abramoff got caught.

But, at the same time, the move itself is never quite as interesting as Spacey’s lead performance. The movie’s main theme appears to be that Washington is corrupt and we’d do better if we curtailed the power of lobbyists but … well, do you really need a movie to tell you this?  I mean I’m pretty much apolitical and I knew that long before I saw Casino Jack!

Casino Jack: Good performance.  Boring message.  Bleh movie.

* This is better known as the Christopher Walken syndrome.

Shattered Politics #81: Charlie Wilson’s War (dir by Mike Nichols)


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I hate to say it but Charlie Wilson’s War did not do much for me.

I hate to say that because this 2007 film is fairly well-acted, well-directed, and well-written (by Aaron Sorkin, whose scripts usually get on my last nerve).  And it deals with an important subject.  Taking place in the 80s, the film details how a Texas congressman (Tom Hanks), working with a profane CIA agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and an eccentric socialite (Julia Roberts), managed to create popular and political support for giving weapons to the Afghan rebels who were fighting the Soviet invasion of their country.  By doing so, Wilson helps to weaken the Soviet Union but, when his efforts to provide humanitarian aide to Afghanistan are less successful, he also contributes to the subsequent rise of the Taliban.

It should have been a film that I would normally rave about but … I don’t know.

I watched Charlie Wilson’s War.  I laughed at some of Tom Hanks’s facial reactions.  (Hanks is playing a womanizer here who may, or may not, have been high on cocaine when he first learned about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and it’s obvious that Hanks really enjoyed getting to play someone who wasn’t a traditionally upright hero.)  As I watched, I again considered what a loss we suffered when the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman died.  And, as I watched Julia Roberts, I again wonder why, despite the fact that she’s from Georgia, it is apparently impossible for Julia to sound authentically Southern.

(Of course, I’m sure some would argue that Julia wasn’t playing Southern here.  She was playing a Texan.  Well, I’m a Texan and I’ve never heard anyone down here sound like that.  Tom Hanks, meanwhile, actually managed to come up with a decent accent.  Wisely, he underplayed the accent, whereas I don’t think that Julia has ever underplayed anything in her life.)

And, at the end of Charlie Wilson’s War, I knew I had watched a good film but it was also a film that left me feeling curious detached.  To be honest, I almost think the film would have been better if Hoffman’s CIA agent had been the main character, as opposed to Hanks’s congressman.  Hoffman’s character, after all, is the one who nearly lost his job over his belief that the Afghan rebels should be armed.  All Hanks really has to worry about is whether or not he’s going to be indicted for using cocaine in Vegas.

However, I do think that Charlie Wilson’s War does deserve praise for one very specific reason.  Excluding the films made by native filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson, Charlie Wilson’s War is one of the few films that I’ve ever seen that actually portrays anyone from Texas in a positive light.  Even more shockingly, it’s a positive portrayal of a Texas politician!

(I know it must have been tempting to change history and pretend that Charlie Wilson was originally elected from somewhere up north…)

But, overall, Charlie Wilson’s War didn’t do much for me.  But, if you’re into military history and all that, you might enjoy the film more than I did.

(Plus, all you boys will probably enjoy Emily Blunt’s scenes….)

At the very least, you can watch it for Philip Seymour Hoffman.

 

Shattered Politics #80: Bobby (dir by Emilio Estevez)


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A few years ago, I was on twitter when I came across someone who had just watched The Breakfast Club.  

“Whatever happened to Emilio Estevez?” she asked.

Being the know-it-all, obsessive film fan that I am, I tweeted back, “He’s a director.”

Of course, I could not leave well enough along.  I had to send another tweet, “He directed a movie called Bobby that got nominated for bunch of Golden Globes.”

“Was it any good?” she wrote back.

“Never seen it,” I wrote back, suddenly feeling very embarrassed because, if there’s anything I hate, it’s admitting that there’s a film that I haven’t seen.

However, Shattered Politics gave me an excuse to finally sit down and watch Bobby.  So now, I can now say that I have watched this 2006 film and … eh.

Listen, I have to admit that I really hate giving a film like Bobby a lukewarm review because it’s not like Bobby is a bad film.  It really isn’t.  As a director, Emilio Estevez is a bit heavy-handed but he’s not without talent.  He’s good with actors.  Bobby actually features good performances from both Lindsay Lohan and Shia LaBeouf!  So, give Estevez that.

And Bobby is a film that Estevez spent seven years making.  It’s a film that he largely made with his own money.  Bobby is obviously a passion project for Estevez and that passion does come through.  (That’s actually one of the reasons why the film often feels so heavy-handed.)

But, with all that in mind, Bobby never really develops a strong enough narrative to make Estevez’s passion dramatically compelling.  The film takes place on the day of the 1968 Democratic California Presidential Primary.  That’s the day that Robert F. Kennedy won the primary and was then shot by Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel.  However, it never seems to know what it wants to say about Kennedy or his death, beyond the fact that Estevez seems to like him.

(Incidentally, it’s always interesting, to me, that Dallas is still expected to apologize every day for the death of JFK but Los Angeles has never had to apologize for the death of his brother.)

Estevez follows an ensemble of 22 characters as they go about their day at and around the Ambassador Hotel.  As often happens with ensemble pieces, some of these characters are more interesting than others.

For instance, Anthony Hopkins plays a courtly and retired doorman who sits in the lobby and plays chess with his friend Nelson (Harry Belafonte).  It adds little to the film’s story but both Hopkins and Belafonte appear to enjoy acting opposite each other and so, they’re fun to watch.

Lindsay Lohan plays a woman who marries a recently enlisted soldier (Elijah Wood), the hope being that his marital status will keep him out of Vietnam.  The problem with this story is that it’s so compelling that it feels unfair that it has to share space with all the other stories.

Christian Slater plays Darrell, who runs the kitchen and who spends most of the movie talking down to the kitchen staff, the majority of whom are Hispanic.  Darrell is disliked by the hotel’s manager (William H. Macy) who is cheating on his wife (Sharon Stone).

And then, you’ve got two campaign aides (Shia LaBeouf and Brian Geraghty) who end up dropping acid with a drug dealer played by Ashton Kutcher.  Unfortunately, Estevez tries to visualize their trip and it brings the film’s action to a halt.

Estevez himself shows up, playing the husband of an alcoholic singer (Demi Moore).  And Estevez’s father, Martin Sheen, gets to play a wealthy supporter of Kennedy’s.  Sheen’s wife is played by Helen Hunt.  She gets to ask her husband whether she reminds him more of Jackie or of Ethel.

(Actually, Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt are cute together.  Much as with Lohan and Wood, you wish that more time had been devoted to them and their relationship.)

And there are other stories as well.  In fact, there’s far too many stories going on in Bobby.  It may seem strange for a girl who is trying to review 94 films in three weeks to say this but Emilio Estevez really tries to cram too much into Bobby.

At the same time, too much ambition is better none.  Bobby may have been a misfire but at least it’s a respectable misfire.