Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010)

Film #9: Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010)

Man, if it’s not a horror movie, it’s a documentary, right? I promise that eventually I’ll expand the scope of films that I review, but lately I seem to either want to scare myself or learn something. Casino Jack and the United States of Money gave me an opportunity to do the latter. This 2010 documentary by director Alex Gibney (who’s also made documentaries about Enron and Eliot Spitzer) focuses on super lobbyist and all-around scumbag Jack Abramoff. In 2006, Abramoff was convicted of fraud, conspiracy, and tax evasion, and his conviction brought down several other government officials, including Representative Bob Ney. Ney contributes interviews for the film, as do loads of other politicians and Washington insiders – pretty much everyone except for the man himself. The film covers the rise and fall of Abramoff in the Washington scene, and how he lobbied for various corporations by wooing members of Congress with trips to Scotland, VIP treatment at his restaurant, and of course, good ole fashioned cash.


Waiting for “Superman” (2010)

Film #5: Waiting for “Superman” (2010)

Waiting for “Superman” is a documentary built on a very sobering fact: The American education system is broken, and it has been since the 1970s. Documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) approaches the subject in a manner in which all successful documentaries are made, combining information with poignant personal stories to expose a serious problem while offering suggestions for possible solutions. Watching this film will give you a solid background on the education issue, explaining what things like tracking and charter schools are. It will also anger and/or depress you, especially the ending that leaves most of its young subjects destined to remain in the broken system.


Dear Zachary (2008)

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is, without a doubt, the saddest film I’ve ever watched. It’s a documentary about a murdered 28 year old doctor, Andrew Bagby, made as a sort of ‘cinematic scrapbook’ for his unborn son. More intense than any fictional film you’ve ever seen, this documentary will have your full attention stay with you for quite some time.


Bruno (2009)

I remember watching Borat a few years ago and utterly disdaining it. To be fair, I had been at a disadvantage in experiencing it: This was quite a few months after it had been popular, so it seemed like there wasn’t a single line in the movie that I hadn’t heard a thousand times before. Even worse, I normally don’t find people being purposefully rude or irritating funny, only obnoxious. Because of this, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat and follow-up, Bruno, start off at a personal disadvantage for me.

I still wanted to give Bruno a chance, though. Cohen’s titular character is a flamboyantly gay Austrian who comes to America looking to get famous. It’s no secret that parts of America are rife with homophobia, so I was hoping for Cohen to help expose and mock a lot of that, perhaps even making some social statements along the way. Unfortunately, Cohen lends no help to the gay community with this film. When people get mad at Cohen in this movie, half of the time I don’t think it’s because he’s gay at all, but rather because he’s wasting their time and being annoying in the process.

I say “half the time” with purpose. Bruno ended up being about half enjoyable and half obnoxious. There are some instances where Bruno captures people at their most delightfully embarrassing. Paula Abdul claims that her experience filmed here was “scarring”, and I’ll at least grant her that it scarred her reputation. Only a fool would agree to discuss human rights while sitting on a man acting as furniture.

One of the most enlightening sequences is also one where Cohen thankfully doesn’t have to make an ass for himself – the people he’s playing off of take over that role. Cohen holds a casting session for a photo shoot for babies, and the parents of the auditioning children are horrendously exploitative. In a culture where beauty pageant contestants are still in diapers and featured on reality TV shows instead of being taken away from their parents, Cohen’s interviews show the absurd extremes to which parents agree to go. It’s horrifying to watch parents agree to their children being strung up on baby crucifixes, and Cohen makes sure to record them agreeing to every last outlandish request.

I was actually pretty impressed by the way some of Cohen’s victims reacted to him. I was horrified when the Ron Paul sequence began, fearing that the elderly politician would say career-shattering homophobic remarks. While Paul did end up calling Cohen “queer”, his reaction was much more tempered then I had expected, especially in light of the uncomfortable position Cohen put him in. In another instance, a “spiritualist” sits patiently, if disapprovingly, by as Cohen entertains himself with a lengthy and humorless blowjob charade bit.

Some parts of the movie are unbelievable. Cohen goes to the Middle East, which I personally find to be one of the ballsiest moves he’s done yet. Another bit that starts off pretty funny, wherein Cohen fools a focus group, ends up going over-the-top in a shameless assault of onscreen male genitalia.

All of the parts with Cohen playing off of people’s reactions are framed by the fictional narrative featuring Bruno and his assistant’s assistant falling in and out of love. Many of these scenes are childish and poorly written, and bring down the film and its already questionable candid footage. One early scene with cartoonish sex acts stands out as exceptionally awful. I definitely would have appreciated a better framing device for Cohen’s antics.

I reiterate that the film was a 50/50 affair for me. The fake narrative scenes were almost all bad, and out of the leftover candid bits, I found only half of them to be comical, with the other half either offensive or just plain stupid. I had problems before seeing the movie with Cohen running around reinforcing stereotypes about homosexuals, but after watching it I may have a bigger problem with the resulting unfunny footage. There are plenty of moments where you will gasp or be in shock, but audacity alone does not make a movie good by any means. Cohen had an opportunity to make an interesting mockumentary that explored social currents in America and around the world. Instead, he opted for some fart jokes and being a jackass in public.

Final rating: 5/10

–James A. Janisse