Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Casino Jack (2010) Premiere at the St. Louis International Film Festival

None of us in the audience last Thursday had any idea that Kevin Spacey would be showing up in George Hickenlooper's place, but, evidently, that's what he'll be doing all over the country at each and every one of the dfifferent film festivals kicking off this fall.

Okay... I sounded like an Associated Press reporter when I wrote that. But to answer your question, Casino Jack is an amazing film. One of my favorites of the year. I agree with Cinema St. Louis host Cliff Froehlich when he says that it is the best movie George Hickenlooper ever made.

A lot of people showed up at the Tivoli for the premiere last Thursday, November 11: if you're interested in seeing some high-quality photos check out this blog piece by Melissa over at We Are Movie Geeks. It'll give you a nice overview of the evening.

As Melissa's piece mentions, before the movie began there was a tribute to Hickenlooper's work complete with a montage including clips from each of his films. Then there were rememberences by Hickenlooper's family and friends. Hickenlooper's friend Bill Boll told an amusing story about how, when they were kids hanging out at Six Flags St. Louis, Hickenlooper filmed a murder sequence on the moving Screamin' Eagle roller coaster and got away with the shot (a story I enjoyed the heck out of, considering that I used to work at that corporate monster of a theme park and absolutely love the notion of a young filmmaker taking advantage of it for the purpose of his art).

I was also happy to see Art Holliday from News Channel 5 come up and talk about how Hickenlooper helped him out with his own filmmaking career. Holliday is currently working on a doc about Chuck Berry, and Hickenlooper pitched in by lining him up for an interview at Taylor Hackford's "compound" (Holliday's own words: "I expected Helen Mirren to drop down from the stairs and serve me lemonade at any moment!")

But Holliday touched on something more personal: he felt guilty that he never got to show Hickenlooper the footage of his documentary. When Hickenlooper asked to see it, Holliday told him to wait because it wasn't finished yet. Holliday said he regretted this, but realized it was time to move on; he knew that Hickenlooper's family had a suffered a loss that was far worse.

Holliday's self-realization reminded me of my own when I paid tribute to Hickenlooper two weeks ago. I deeply regretted not getting to meet Hickenlooper in person, but when I realized I was being selfish, I made myself move on. As Bill Boll put it in his rememberence speech, Hickenlooper himself might have said to us, "Don't worry. At least I got my shot."

After these rememberences as well as a rememberence by actor Spencer Garrett, who plays Tom Delay in the film. Then, Cliff Froehlich announced that "Casino Jack himself" was going to be coming out.

Holy shit.

Sure enough, Kevin Spacey walks out, and suddenly there's a big standing ovation in the audience. Spacey offered his own brief rememberence of Hickenlooper (he recalls how Hickenlooper sometimes whined, "I can't believe we're out here shooting fuckin' Goodfellas in D.C."), and then the movie began.

Like I said, the movie is incredible. It's effortlessly entertaining. Incredible performances by Spacey, Garrett, Jon Lovitz, Kelly Preston and the late Maury Chaykin. I've always liked Hickenlooper's movies, but this movie makes such fascinating use of jump-cuts, snappy dialogue and a smashing soundtrack that it DOES sort of bring back the old-fashioned Scorsese spirit.

After the movie was over, Spacey and Spencer Garrett came out for a Q & A session. I sat there in the audience puzzled because, unlike my Q & A with David Lynch, this one posed a problem for a filmmaker wannabe such as myself: what do you ask an actor? I had no idea what I could possibly learn from whatever question I asked Spacey. Some people were asking him, "Did you get to meet the real Jack Abramoff?" Others were telling him how they liked the final scene in which he goes on an imaginary tirade against his sentencing judge--a scene straight out of Norman Jewison's ...And Justice for All (1979). These were amusing questions, but they were also generic. I wanted to challenge Spacey and Garrett and throw them completely off-guard.

Once it came time for them to call upon another person, Spacey began pointing his finger at the dozens of hands raised in the front row. He wasn't sure who to pick. With me in the back row fearing that I would never be called upon, I mustered up a little courage, and stood up while raising my hand.

Spacey sees me. "Oh! Yes? Wayyy there in back the row... I always hate it when I miss the back row."

I cleared my throat, and began my question.

"Yes, uhh... I noticed that throughout the movie, George sprinkled in a lot of famous quotes from famous movies here and there. Like, there was a Taxi Driver quote, which of course was an homage to Martin Scorsese. There were Godfather quotes, which were homages to Francis Ford Coppola. And I counted at least two references to Norman Jewison: one to ...And Justice for All, as you've mentioned, but also one to Fiddler on the Roof. So, I guess my question is: did you guys and George have any copyright troubles in getting permission for all of these famous quotes?"


"Wow," Spacey says into the microphone. "That is a REALLY good question. Are you a lawyer?"

The whole audience erupted into laughter.

"No!" I shouted back. "I just love movies!"

Spacey smiled. He then proceeded to answer my question very thoughtfully, first by pointing out that since the real Jack Abramoff really is obsessed with quoting movies, Hickenlooper felt it only necessary to include them in the film. Spacey offered me some other explanations, but I've forgotten most of them--because, admittedly, I was in a state of euphoria over getting my question answered by a two-time Academy Award-winning actor.

"Besides," Spacey concluded, "George is dead--do you really fuckin' think they'd care anymore???"

Again, the audience burst out laughing. I laughed as well. With that, I expressed my thanks, and parted.

Since my mother hadn't been able to see the film (by chance, I had bought the last ticket), I felt like I had to quickly leave the theater since I knew she was probably waiting outside. Once outside, however, she came rushing out to me; she had been allowed to witness the Q & A screening without my knowledge, as well as take the cellphone photos that you now see here. In this particular photo that she took of the actots, Spacey and Garrett smiled for the camera:

Although I deeply regret not getting to meet George Hickenlooper during his life or getting to see him attend the premiere of Casino Jack in his own hometown, this was a nice way to make up for his absence. When Casino Jack gets its wide release next month, I urge you to see it: it truly is one of the year's best films. I do confess to perhaps loving it more than some will, since, through my brief connections to Hickenlooper, it's sort of a personal film for me. Now it's a personal film for me in another way as well.


  1. I'm glad you had a chance to go to this and ask a famously prickly movie star a question to his face. I haven't seen many Hickenlooper films; I must admit that "Factory Girl" left me underwhelmed, but "Hearts of Darkness" is, of course, a classic of documentary filmmaking. I've been hoping that "Casino Jack" will get Spacey's career back on track. His smirkiness has been getting in the way of his roles over the last ten years, but with this character it would seem appropriate.

  2. Factory Girl is among the Hickenlooper films I still have to see... I also gotta check out Mayor of the Sunset Strip, The Low Life and Persons Unknown. Definitely an overlooked filmmaker.

    The movie is actually a very splendid comeback for Spacey, particularly because his post-American Beauty career has led to some pretty awful flicks. I consider Pay it Forward the absolute worst film of the decade... Superman Returns is somewhere on that list, too. But he's on fire in this film. It's good to see him back in form.


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