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“Casino Jack,” Reviewed

“Casino Jack,” Reviewed (photo)

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We meet Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff in a public restroom. He’s brushing his teeth and looking at himself in the mirror when he suddenly bursts into a monologue, a statement of principles brimming with anger and defiance. “Mediocrity,” he tells himself, “is where most people live. It is the disease of the dull. I will not allow the world I touch to be vanilla!”

This is how the Abramoff biopic “Casino Jack” begins. It throws down the gauntlet and announces that it will not fall into the trap of so many bland ripped-from-the-headline biopics, and you have to admire the fact that director George Hickenlooper had the chutzpah to put himself and his film out there like that. But sadly, “Casino Jack” just doesn’t measure up to its own yardstick of success. Despite some decent performances and a great true story, it is a vanilla mediocrity. Certainly watchable, but also instantly forgettable.

If you follow the news or saw Alex Gibney’s Abramoff documentary from earlier this year you will not be surprised by the story. Hickenlooper focuses primarily on Abramoff’s final years in Washington, and fills in the earlier details with chunks of clunky expository dialogue. Despite his status as the highest paid lobbyist in D.C., Abramoff is always on the hunt for more cash, “liquid,” as he calls it. Along with his partner Mike Scanlon (Barry Pepper), he tries to squeeze exorbitant fees from Native American tribes and purchase a controlling interest in a fleet of casino cruise ships with a sleazy mattress salesman (Jon Lovitz). As his corruptions mount, the financial pressures surrounding him rise. Structurally, the movie falls into the category of films like “Bad Lieutenant” about corrupt people desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the falling dominos. The difference here is that we already know the film’s outcome ahead of time, which certainly diminishes the suspense.

The movie does give you the sense that Abramoff is a very complicated man; in real life, at least, he certainly didn’t succumb to the disease of the dull. He’s deeply committed to philanthropy work, but he’s also obsessed with materialistic comforts and symbols of status. He’s an Orthodox Jew but he seems most comfortable in the presence of conservative Christians. In insisting on his innocence – or at least his lack of guilt in excess of other Washington lobbyist — he possessed either a remarkable amount of defiance or a remarkable amount of delusion. And the role is perfect for Spacey, who’s always been great at portraying characters who’ve forgotten how to read their own moral compass.

But Spacey never quite congeals all those personality facets into a coherent whole. If only there were more moments like that opening monologue, that really gave him a chance to chew on the complexities of this man. Otherwise, most of “Casino Jack” just goes through the biopic motions with Cliff’s Notes versions of Abramoff’s schemes around Capitol Hill. A final confrontation between Abramoff and the senators who raised charges against him bears some interesting implications about the intersection of politics and media culture, but it’s also burdened by some incredibly didactic “shame on you, sir!”-style dialogue.

The director of “Casino Jack” is George Hickenlooper, who tragically passed away of an accidental drug overdose last October at the age of 47. Hickenlooper was obviously a man who loved to tell stories from real-life. Before he made biopics like “Factory Girl” and “Casino Jack” he was an extremely accomplished documentarian; his “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” about the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” is one of the best documentaries ever made about film. I liked his repeated use of low angles that frame people with desks or tables peeking into the lower foreground of shots; his camera is literally “under the table.” But that’s one clever motif in an otherwise underwhelming film. Mediocrity is where most people live, and what a lot of movies are.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

E.coli-class-

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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