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Tonight's FNatM is by chingchongchinaman.

Last night at the St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the opening night film was Casino Jack, the new film about Jack Abramoff (and all that).  Its director was George Hickenlooper, whose last name might ring a bell with some as DK, as his cousin is John Hickenlooper, the new Governor-elect of Colorado and current mayor of Denver.  BTW, John H. has a cameo in the film as a Senator.  George H. was in Denver just before the midterm election, to spend time with his relatives and also to introduce a screening at the Starz Denver Film Festival of Casino Jack last Thursday.  Sadly, he never got to host the screening or to see his cousin's election triumph, because he died on October 30.  More below the flip.....

Below is a YT clip of George Hickenlooper, being interviewed in Toronto, in conversation related to Casino Jack:

Here's another YT interview video related to Casino Jack from the Hamptons International Film Festival:

And one more, from the Austin Film Festival, with Hickenlooper and Jon Lovitz (Adam Kidan in the film):

I have to admit that I didn't see many of Hickenlooper's films, just 2.  The first of the two, though, was a doozy, his documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, Hearts of Darkness (1991).  Hearts of Darkness was originally aired on Showtime.  But it later got a theatrical release, including reviews from:
(a) The NYT
(b) Roger Ebert

I actually saw both Hearts of Darkness and Apocalypse Now on the same day at the same theater.  If you want to start watching Hearts of Darkness in somewhat sub-par quality off YT:

The other Hickenlooper film I saw was at the 2002 Film Festival here, The Man from Elysian Fields, kind of a fractured fairy tale about a down-and-out author (Andy Garcia) who, to make some $ and keep his family solvent, joins an upscale escort agency run by none other than his Satanic Majesty himself, Mick Jagger.  Before you laugh at that last bit, what astonished me (and it's hard to write this without sounding patronizing, not that Sir Mick cares what I think) at the time about the movie is how good Mick Jagger's performance was.  He dials down and resists any temptation to overact, which proves that, beyond his Rolling Stones stage persona, the man can act.  If you want to read some reviews of the movie:

(1) A.O. Scott, NYT (pretty "meh" about it)
(2) The Great Thumb himself (much more favorable)

BTW, I'm sure that many of you have heard of the short film "Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade", which later became a full-length feature film.  Hickenlooper directed the short, though not the feature.  Part I of the short is here:

Going on to the screening of Casino Jack from last night, the first thing to note is that instead of the planned cocktail party with Hickenlooper in attendance before the film, SLIFF invited friends and colleagues of Hickenlooper to reminisce about him, including Spencer Garrett, who plays Tom DeLay in the movie.  Given the melancholy subtext of the evening, the festival organizers pulled the one rabbit out of the hat that could have done the most to turn the mood of the night around, namely a surprise guest as the last speaker before the film.  The surprise guest was the actor who portrays Abramoff in the movie, none other than Kevin Spacey.  Virtually the entire audience rose at Spacey's entrance.

Discussing the movie could take up an entire diary in of itself, so I have to confine myself to very quick impressions.  Given the circumstances and sentiment running high, it would be nice to say things like "Casino Jack is a masterpiece" or "everybody in America should see this film now".  With respect to all concerned, the film is....OK.  Very smart OK, admittedly, which presumes awareness of the audience to at least some degree of the parties and events involved, and a snappily paced, entertaining movie, with more humor than you might expect given the story.  But, nonetheless, it's OK, not great.  

Spacey is in, if not quite every moment of the film, pretty close to it, and has a high old time playing Abramoff, with a strong support cast (including the aforementioned Jon Lovitz as a mob-connected loser mattress salesman - long story, don't ask).  One thing to be noted about Casino Jack is how much of it consists of Abramoff and others riffing on old movie lines, which might seem just a tad irritating, until you realize that Jack Abramoff is a huge movie buff in real life, and in fact, produced two Dolph Lundgren movies.  

In the post-movie Q&A, Spacey and Garrett shared stories about working on the movie and with Hickenlooper, as you'd expect.  One amusing bit was how Hickenlooper got some shots of Washington, D.C. for the movie, but without full permission from the authorities, namely by having people distract the cops while they shot their footage.  Hickenlooper did this as a kid when he made a silent film in high school, part of which was shot at Six Flags Mid-America, namely to shoot footage on the roller coaster without getting full permission from the people in charge, so that the child is father to the man there.  Of course, Spacey did get in some political comments, such as how this movie is one attempt to illustrate how money so thoroughly corrupts the political system, and that any change will have to come from us, not the politicians.

Yet there was a comment later on, about such filmmakers as Robert Altman and Dennis Hopper, which might seem to contradict that idea about political reform, admittedly in the context of filmmaking.  Loosely paraphrasing from memory, Spacey said something like this:

"People say that movie makers like Robert Altman, Hal Ashby and Dennis Hopper were 'mavericks'.  Yet Hopper said: 'I'm not trying to overturn the system, I'm trying to join it.'  Filmmakers like Altman got to make the movies they wanted to make, because they learned to compromise a little and work within the system."

Of course, given the erratic output of Altman's films, one wonders about that, but that's a topic for another day.

One questioner also asked "wouldn't it have been better to have released this film before the midterm elections?", where just about everyone in the room understood the subtext.  Spacey poured cold water on that subliminal idea, that maybe a film like that could have turned it around for our side, by saying that if it had been released before the election, nobody would have gone to see it, because it would have gotten lost in the real-life maelstrom going on in the run-up to the midterms, and that a film about politics in the middle of that context would have been the last film that anyone would have wanted to see.  He basically shot down the idea of movies like Casino Jack having any sort of large influence on the larger political scene.  In the back of my mind there, at least, is a film like Fahrenheit 9/11, which ended up being one long anti-Dumbya campaign commercial to try to sway the 2004 election.  And we all know how that ended up.

Getting back to the (absent) man of honor, as you can imagine on such an evening, the tributes to Hickenlooper were fulsome and generous.  In an article in the Riverfront Times the day of the St. Louis Casino Jack screening, Kristin Hinman summed it up:

"The latest opus, a biopic with A-list actors, was generating Oscar buzz among early viewers.......While St. Louis theaters always gave Hickenlooper movies top billing, much of his work never got distributed beyond the festival circuit".

I don't know what's going to happen with Casino Jack once it gets wider release.  I certainly wish the film well, and I don't doubt that the actors will give it what they've got to push the movie into greater attention, even if a bittersweet tinge runs through it all, with one person in particular no longer around to relish the action.

So now it's your turn, to talk about movies you've seen, or anything else about movies.  The DK film forum below is yours.....

Originally posted to Friday Night at the Movies on Fri Nov 12, 2010 at 08:51 PM PST.

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