Archive for April, 2010

Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010)

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

casino_jack_and_the_united_states_of_moneyThe response I had to “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” is akin to when I, or really anyone, watches a book-to-film adaptation, especially of a very popular book, like one of the entries from the Harry Potter or Twilight series, a film made knowing that most of the fan base will be showing up to opening night. Depending on whether or not you’ve read the book your response to the movie will differ. If you have, you are able to fill in the blanks and connect all the plot lines and character motives that they had to cut out in order to make a 600+ page book into a two and a half hour movie. If you have not, then you can feel lost as you gaze into the plot holes, and as the movie progresses, the ability to track becomes much more difficult with an unfamiliar story line. Also if you fall into this second category, the inability to suspend disbelief is often accentuated because you will not feel as close to the characters as those who have poured over ever jot and tittle of the writer and it will therefore be up to the director to explain why you need to care about this person, about their story and about this film. If you leave the film and don’t care about what happened and what happens next, the director had not done his job. Watching “Casino Jack,” a documentary about Jack Abramoff, fraudster and lobbyist, I felt like I had not read the book and, furthermore, the director did not do his job.

Black_Jack2Just to give some background on me as an audience for “Jack”, I know nothing about politics. I know the name of the current president and if I’m given a few moments, I believe I can give the name of the vice-president. I am well aware that this makes me completely uninformed and wildly naive about something that affects me and my family and that I should stop watching and writing about film and start studying government. Yes, yes…I know. I got it. Ok. Now that you got that off your chest let me make the assertion, not as an excuse but just to get on with my review, that I am not alone. It is up to the filmmakers, especially in a documentary, to educate the audience about their subject. They should come to the editing room with people like me in mind and walk the very fine line between talking down to your audience and forgetting it altogether. As I was watching this film, I was confused. Then I was more confused. Then I was bored. For any other director I would have chalked it up as general ineptitude; someone who had not tackled a subject this big and did not understand that a general thesis needed to be agreed on before starting to film. However, the director of “Casino Jack”, Alex Gibney, also did “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “The Road to Guantanamo Bay,” two very good documentaries that handled their subjects thoroughly and fairly. Therefore I must conclude that the director, and the editor Alison Ellwood, both understand the subject very well, I would say too well, and forgot about people like myself who don’t have the slightest idea what a caucus or a lobbyist is. After watching the film, I still don’t know what a lobbyist is. I don’t know what Abramoff did besides that it had something to do with making money from Native Americans and their casinos and then getting greedy, as well as something else with emails that he wrote. But, yeah, that’s about it. That’s not just a knock against a poorly thought out thesis, that’s saying that the whole film was incompetently planned and edited.

There were portions where Jack wasn’t on screen or even talked about for large stretches of the film. This movie is supposed to be about him, right? It is his nickname in the title. It is his mug on the poster. Yet, we spend a good 10 minutes talking about the Northern Marianas Islands and the sweatshops and prostitution and poverty of its inhabitants. Why? I believe that Jack Abramoff was involved with it somehow; something about leading tours through the sweatshops, but darned if I know why he was doing it or what that should be making us feel about Jack. Another example. Early on in Abramoff’s life he converted to Judaism after watching “Fiddler on the Roof.” An interesting anecdote for sure but it was never brought up again. Was he a very religious man who struggled with guilt over what he did? Maybe, but it isn’t mentioned. Did he use his Judaism as a tool to get on people’s good side or into exclusive groups and clubs? I don’t know. Like I said, it’s here then it’s gone. So, why bring it up at all? Abramoff’s downfall came from the copious amount of emails he wrote speaking blatantly about all the people he was ripping off and all the other scams he was planning to implement. That’s the big turn around of the story. Finally the villain has been captured! Yet, we are not shown who got all his emails, how Jack was discovered, what he felt when it happened, nor how it all panned out. That would have been interesting to see. Instead we get the emails floating across the screen in stylish text as Stanley Tucci narrates. It’s the next best thing I suppose.

abramoff-fedora-muckIf I were to come up to you and tell you that someone you don’t know was caught for fraud and placed in jail, your response would probably fall somewhere between, “Who?” and “So?” and that’s reasonable because you have no connection with this person you’ve never met and therefore don’t know why you should care about him. I don’t know who Jack Abramoff is. I don’t really care who he is. I went to this film saying, “Tell me why you spent the time to make this movie and, more importantly, why I should spend the time to watch it.” I didn’t get an answer. In the end, there really did not seem to be much of a point. We have to know why we should care before we can care. The film spans Abramoff’s life and he is never portrayed in a good light, so he is clearly the bad guy we need to boo when he’s on screen so I’m not going to empathize with him. So, then whom are we supposed to be rooting for? The Native American’s he swindled? They are not really given enough screen time and we never really land on that subject long enough for any of the talking heads to be given much of a personality. Really no one, not the politicians, not the reporters, not the associates, no one was given much of a personality and therefore I didn’t give two spits about anyone, which is just poor storytelling. One of the final lines in the film says it all. “[Jack's] action filled life led way to a dreary documentary.” And how.

Exit through the Gift Shop (2010)

Friday, April 16th, 2010

exit-through-the-gift-shop[/caption] Banksy is a British graffiti street artist. His art is known throughout the world, however his identity is, even now, a complete mystery. The art he creates is often satirical; often taking jabs at government and popular culture. One of his pictures, “Naked Man” is a painting of a naked man hanging outside a window while inside a wife is shown in a state of undress and her husband is searching around for her lover. This picture was painted on the side of a sexual health clinic. That’s his style. There is a specific stenciling technique that he incorporates which is sometimes accompanied with graffiti writing; sometimes rats are shown; they are most times holding signs, balloons or paintbrushes. He has held various exhibitions, mostly in England but one titled, “Barley Legal” was held in Los Angeles. It created controversy due to an art piece containing a live elephant painted from head to toe in children’s finger paint to become the literal “elephant in the room”. As can be discerned by his many efforts to keep his identity a secret and because he instead prefers to let his art speak for itself, Banksy is clearly not in it for the fame. This movie is not about him. Not really.

banksy-graffiti-street-art-naked-man[/caption]Street art is a form of art that some would liken to graffiti, a higher level of graffiti, yes, but always on public property for the world to see. Sometimes the art is supposed to make a statement, sometimes it’s just a way to say “Hey, I was here.” Really the reasons for the artists to choose this type of art are as varied as the artists themselves. Street art comes in various shapes and forms; sticker art or wheatpasting for the larger pictures, stencil graffiti, traditional spray paint, mosaic tiling, etc. As usually happens when the shunned becomes cool, street art has become mainstream, and now, art by the big names in the street art scene, like Banksy, are being sold for thousands and thousands of dollars. However, this movie is not about the history of street art either. Not really.

exit-through-the-gift-shop-ratWhat this movie IS (kinda) about is a man named Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant who moved to Los Angeles opened a vintage clothes shop and made a decent living for himself and his family. His look reminded me of John Belushi in “The Blues Brothers.” Thierry has one tiny quirk. He’d picked up a video camera once and has not put it down since. He incessantly films everything and everyone around him. It became an obsession really, to document (devour) every moment, to record that “he was here.” It is speculated, by Thierry himself, that the fascination began when he missed his mother’s death and a boy taunting him in the streets informed him that she was dead. Whether or not this is the reason, Thierry carried his video camera wherever he went. When he went home to France for a vacation, his cousin, a street artist with the moniker of Space Invader (since he fashions the little monsters of the video game from the tiles of old Rubik’s Cubes) became the focus of Thierry’s home movies. Thierry began following Invader around Paris as Invader put up his art on various walls and bridges. Then through Invader, Thierry was introduced to other street artists, eventually, finally meeting Banksy. He filmed them all; always under the pretense that he was making a documentary.

The thing is that he was not making a documentary; in fact he was taking all the tapes he was recording, placing them in boxes and forgetting all about them. Filming, for him, was the end result; not sharing with others, not to re-watch and reminisce. All he did was capture. When street art started losing it’s poignancy and began adorning the walls of art collectors, Banksy told Thierry it was time to release his documentary and tell the real story behind what street art was all about. But Thierry had no idea what to do and his efforts to make a movie were ill-guided. So Banksy took all of Thierry’s footage and told him to go make his own art. Thierry did. It turns out that self-importance turns bad character even worse. Though the art he created borrowed heavily (read: ripped off completely) from other artists such as Andy Warhol, Shepard Fairey and Banksy himself, he was a complete success – both financially and critically.

sundance2010-banksyThis movie begs the question, “Is this real?” Banksy is known as a heck of a prankster and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to think that he fabricated the entire story. If he did, however, then it really is a stroke of genius to tell the story of a man with no real talent, no training, and no real ambition but to become famous as a metaphor for what Banksy thinks of street artists who sell out. While in the same breath, he is telling the story of street art from its humble beginnings through to its gross commercialism which has grown so money hungry it swallows up anything that has the semblance of the street art. This power grab that allows a man like Thierry to become a successful “artist”. Banksy is also able to tell his own story and his feelings about what street art used to be and where it’s all ended up. If it’s not real, it is superbly written. Yet even if it is real, it is still so well structured, so multi-layered as to encompass all of these ideas and stories into a very entertaining and compelling narrative.