Background – Passes for Casino Jack came with the package I bought at TIFF. I skipped it for Modra, a Canadian film with hip reviews and hipper people giving out flyers for it. I felt bad about missing Casino Jack since director George Hickenlooper‘s untimely death. My intuition failed, choosing a movie that came to theatres four days before this one, thinking this had better distribution chances. I’m watching Casino Jack in January instead of The Mechanic, ditching a friend in the process . I’m a Metacritic slave I so might never see The Mechanic.
On Casino Jack. I have faint recollections of people belonging to the footnotes of history, and the film’s subject, Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey), is supposedly a monstrous figure. Instead we get an ex-movie producer quoting movies a lot, with delusions of grandeur and a warped perception of competitive capitalism. The film’s first scene shows him claiming, in front of a mirror, that he works hard so that his family doesn’t have to walk or ride the subway, juxtaposed by him getting stuck in traffic with his daughter, hearing bad news from his partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), hiding from FBI for frauding left and right. Affluence doesn’t mean convenience, especially if your means are illegitimate.
Jack tries to convince us that he’s in the right while the film tries to convince us that he’s either deluded or caught up. He says that his job, lobbying helps congressmen to decide the laws for America. The film knows that it’s audience is smart enough to know that if congressmen wanted to write effective laws, they’d visit their constituents. Almost every character tainted hands in this fictional yet probably accurate portrayal of Washington. Jack uses his laundered money to build restaurants or Jewish schools, our devil’s advocate. We see the embarrassment of riches that he and these usurpers dip themselves into, the trinkets they need to feel accomplished, taking down enemies without knowing the consequences.
Nothing interesting visually in this film. Most of the camera work hides, for example, the blue sky, photoshopping the CN Tower between or behind those condos in ‘Florida’ that I’ve been in, hiding Senator ‘John McCain’ between those Manchurian Candidate-esque TV screens. There’s Spacey transforming himself into Jack in the photos of him, his skin droopier. There are also low angle shots of Jack as he’s being fired and/or interrogated.
Spacey’s never convinced me as a lead actor, and it takes a while for Pepper to settle within a suit-and-tie role, but they’re wonderful to watch in quieter scenes. They’re also a great part of an ensemble, illuminating a script full of pas de deux between characters. Michael’s girlfriend is played by Rachelle Lefevre, making memorable entrances and exits, doing wordplay as efficiently as the men, the film’s Cressida. Adam Kidan is played by Jon Lovitz, complementing the film through ccomic timing. These four are worth a matinée, including Jack’s description of Imelda Marcos, the strangest one I’ve heard.
Waitress shows pie maker Jenna’s (Keri Russell) unhappy, unique life and family through filters of both comedy and tragedy. I understand that the decision to portray such a life might repel some viewers, but both can coexist is life and it makes sense for both to harmoniously coexist within the same film. The kooky cast of characters entering and exiting Jenna’s hospital room, no matter how set-up it is, has the same emotional gravity as the scene when Jenna’s husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto), hits her in his car, discovering her plan to run away from him.
The little sociologist within me has seen within this movie the trials of a woman in her situation. The long times in rural areas to wait for a bus to either get to or from work – in so-obvious studio set pieces, nonetheless – or to get away from an abusive husband. Possibilities that a double-income partnership may still be in danger of the man controlling the money and the woman having to hide money all over the house. Resenting her unborn child. Justifications in being disloyal in loveless marriages and having affairs clumsy guys like Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). Too real for some people who will be watching this movie.
The film also shows the beginning of the cycle through Jenna’s coworker, Dawn (Adrienne Shelley) and the latter’s persistent admirer, Ogie. He courts her through phone calls and visits to the pie place where they work, and declares that he won’t stop until she says yes. I don’t know if I’m the only one who did a face-palm when she relents. Ogie’s presented in the movie as a gentle soul with his terrible poetry, and pardon the meanness, but he looks more like a beggar than a chooser, so we know he’ll be forever grateful. However, Jenna also talks about how Earl has changed, which makes Dawn and Ogie’s early stages of love seem more suspect.
Don’t, however, forget the comedy. This movie depicts people – as a T.S. Eliot expert on my iPod has said – who either don’t write or can’t write or won’t write. They deal with their neurotic doctors and business owners their own way. Not every abused wife lives like a LifeTime TV movie nor centres her life on her husband. Women like her may have other people in their lives. Adrienne Shelley, who also wrote and directed the film, must have dug into a nice place in conjuring these characters. Sadly, we’ll never know where.
Saw this at the TIFF Cinematheque as part of their Pasolini retrospective. Apparently I would have stayed longer in the theatre for 25 more minutes if the Cinematheque had the premiere version. It’s either in Criterion, on the internets, or is lost ‘forever.’
The movie isn’t porn. It isn’t titillating, unless having a two second glimpse of 16-year old flaccid penis gets you off, which is, good for you I guess. Four men, the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate and the President sign a book of rules, shepherd eighteen adolescent boys and girls into a mansion and degrade them sexually. There isn’t the contact nor intimacy nor should I say, intensity of ‘normal’ sexual activities. The adolescents are ‘taught’ sexual acts and are told that that’s their purpose. They have to please these four men and their pleasure isn’t a reward. And they eat shit and they get sliced in the forehead. If you were expecting something else, sigh on you.
It’s funny how I can’t show any nudity or sexual acts to a 20 year old in the screen caps – I won’t anyway – but it would probably have been OK to show the same 20 year old with a gun on his head. Or his tongue cut off.
This movie is Pasolini’s critique of fascism in Italy, but I’ll get back to more on that. While the men are examining one of the potential girls, the Magistrate asks her if he will prefer them to the nuns in the convent, the gamine answers that she doesn’t know that yet. This might look like overreading, but a madam transfers the innocent child from one oppressive system to another, a typical problem in ‘modern’ Europe when religious absolute monarchies are overthrown by totalitarian regimes like that in Italy. Depending on your judgment of the girl’s fortune, she wasn’t chosen because of a missing tooth. The nuns already turned her into damaged goods.
Again, critique of Fascist Italy, and conspiracy theories suggest the Neo-Fascist P2 killed Pasolini. That was repeated by my friend’s friend outside the theatre at the end of the film, who likened the mansion in Salo to the 9 billion secret prisons being built in Canada at this moment – his opinion, not mine. The fact that Fascism ruled in more than one country in Europe, and that threat constantly pops up made the film more resonant to me. And that I couldn’t like the inane blindness and heteronormative stance of Amarcord, a movie made near the same time about the same earlier period, after watching Salo. Although it’s not a great one or a favourite, it’s essential.
However, Michael Haneke names this one of his ten favourite films. Obviously.
Two scenes in Akira Kurosawa’s swan song Madadayo say it all, and in a way the latter scene repeats the same message as the former. The first scene of the film shows the Sensei, a German professor, appearing behind a blue door and entering a classroom. He stands in a platform most Westernized classrooms are equipped with. He announces his retirement from teaching. The whole class tells him that he will always be their Sensei, stands to show their allegiance to him. He pulls a handkerchief and dries his tears.
The second scene is Sensei’s first Madadayo banquet, in a German beer hall, a party held with the constraints of postwar finances. He drinks a glass of beer as big as his arms. His former students perform some curious, culturally esoteric ritual where they ask him if he’s ready – to die – and his frail old voice confidently bellows, “Madadayo,” meaning not yet.
Both scenes show the Sensei towering over his students, then seamlessly make him short and meek and humble within five minutes or less. He’s a great man, raised by his status, but he’s human and relatable. Kurosawa’s always shown masculinity as a contest but he refreshingly shows manliness as gentle and civilized. There’s still the war context and the Westernization of Japan. None of the men in the movie are shown literally fighting, but the Sensei is defiant and has successfully taught that defiance to his students.
Also, it’s a story about a man and his cat, if you’re willing to endure something like that. As a character study, it’s difficult for Madadayo to become a great film. His students repeatedly call him “a lump of gold without impurities,” which may be applied to this film. It’s no bracelet, but you’d be a fool to dismiss its beauty.