DID YOU READ

“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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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.