Jewish Journal

Avarice, murder, love and lunacy

By Iris Mann

Posted on Nov. 23, 2010 at 10:38 am

Kevin Spacey, second from right, stars in "Casino Jack," opening Dec. 17.

Kevin Spacey, second from right, stars in "Casino Jack," opening Dec. 17.

The holiday season is prime movie-going time, with many new films slated to open. Outstanding performances by stellar actors abound, and some hold the promise of Oscar worthiness. Among the notable productions are two films based on real-life events full of excitement and intrigue. We offer a look at a handful of new releases coming soon to a theater near you.

“Casino Jack,” which will be in theaters Dec. 17, chronicles the exploits of notorious Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff (starring Kevin Spacey — see interview with Spacey on Page 6), who was sentenced to federal prison on charges including fraud, the corrupting of public officeholders and conspiracy. Earlier this year, he was transferred from federal prison in western Maryland to a halfway house somewhere in the mid-Atlantic area and is scheduled for release Dec. 4.

Tragically, as this story was being prepared, the movie’s director, George Hickenlooper, was found dead in Denver, Colo., where he was slated to attend a film festival screening of “Casino Jack.”

Unlike the Alex Gibney documentary “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” which was in theaters earlier this year and detailed Abramoff’s activities from his college days onward, this film focuses on the lobbyist’s dealings and double-dealings with Indian gaming clients; his attempted entry into SunCruz Casinos, an offshore gambling enterprise that led him into an involvement with mob-connected Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz) and culminated in the murder of the casino’s former owner; his relationship with business partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper); and his interactions with powerful Republican legislators and members of the Evangelical Christian movement.

Screenwriter Norman Snider found elements of darkly comic absurdity as well as high drama and a certain universality of theme in this saga.

“To me, it’s Shakespearean. It’s Richard III, you know; it’s hubris,” Snider said. “The thing that also interests me about Jack Abramoff was his towering ambition. He was going to start this casino empire around the world; it was just ambition that got out of hand. And, actually, the fall didn’t happen until they were really successful. He was the super lobbyist; he was making tens of millions of dollars, and it was success that destroyed him. That’s a universal theme as far as I’m concerned.”

Although Snider didn’t visit Abramoff in prison, both Spacey and Hickenlooper did, and Snider used a great deal of the information they obtained, as well as their impressions of Abramoff, in drafting the script. In addition, Snider said he got a lot of material about Abramoff and Scanlon from unexpected sources.

“At a certain point, it sort of got out on the grapevine that I was doing this script,” Snider said. “People came out of the woodwork, from all over the place, and started to talk to me about their characteristics and tell me war stories. There were several people who knew them both very well and told me various anecdotes about them, and I was able to get a sense of their personalities from that.”

What emerged was a portrait of Abramoff that some may find more sympathetic than might be expected. According to Snider, both the director and Spacey gave him the impression that Abramoff was very intelligent, charming and charismatic.

“I think, in these cases, people’s desire to be sternly moralistic and paint somebody as bad — and make no mistake, what Mr. Abramoff did was against the law — they tend to lose track of their more positive qualities. People of that caliber are very complex, and I tried to capture some of that complexity in my script,” Snider said.

Snider also dealt at great length with Abramoff’s Orthodox Judaism and his belief that its tenets lead inevitably to ultra-conservative political principles. In that vein, Abramoff tried to forge a common cause with fundamentalist Christians in the Republican Party.

“I find Jewish Republicanism hard to swallow,” said Snider, “because I feel that in that far-right kind of Southern strategy Republicanism there’s a strong core of anti-Semitism that remains, and in born-again, fundamentalist Christianity, there’s a belief in the end of the world, at which time the Jews are all going to be converted.”

As for what the screenwriter hopes audiences will take from his film, “I would like them to come away with a better understanding of how Washington works, of how politics works under the surface. I think lobbying, which is such a key part to the political process, is barely understood by anybody in the public. Hopefully, they will have that sense, and, other than that, my aims are purely aesthetic and artistic, so that people will understand the ferocious absurdity of a great deal of public life.”

From political machinations we move to a tale involving three murders, a love story and a wealthy Jewish dynasty.

“All Good Things,” slated for a Dec. 10 release, is based on events in the life of Robert Durst, son of a real estate tycoon. Durst was suspected of murder, though never tried, when his wife disappeared in 1982.

Kirsten Dunst and Ryan Gosling in “All Good Things,” opening Dec. 10. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Director Andrew Jarecki explained that the writers fictionalized the characters for the film, so that the Durst family became the Marks family, including David Marks (Ryan Gosling), his wife, Katie (Kirsten Dunst), and David’s father, Sanford Marks (Frank Langella).

The story follows David as, after his wife’s disappearance, he eventually lands in Galveston, Texas, where he lives in a $300-a-month apartment and pretends to be a mute woman. He befriends a drifter named Melvin Bump (Philip Baker Hall), who seems willing to help when David’s old friend Deborah Lehrman (Lily Rabe) starts pressuring him for money when she is contacted by the police and asked to be a witness in their reopened investigation of Katie’s disappearance 18 years after the incident. Before she has a chance to meet with the authorities, Lehrman is found murdered in her home. Soon afterward, Bump is found dismembered, and David is tried for his murder, but is not convicted.

Jarecki is the director responsible for the highly honored documentary “Capturing the Friedmans,” which dealt with a father and son imprisoned on charges of child sexual abuse.

“I’m certainly interested in monster stories,” Jarecki said. “I’m interested in people who have been portrayed in the media as these burlesque characters in some way, or in somebody who’s viewed as being insane or a diabolical criminal, or somebody who’s been seen as a sex-crazed maniac.

“For me, what’s interesting about those stories, usually, is that you understand that these people who have these remarkable histories also had a mother and also had hopes and dreams as a child, and had plans for themselves and expectations that they were going to grow up and do something great in the world.”

While Jarecki didn’t feel this project would be well served by being done in a documentary style, he did undertake the kind of extensive research that he conducted for “Friedmans.”

“We made enormous numbers of lists of everybody who had anything to do with the story or who could shed any light on the characters,” Jarecki said, “and that could be somebody that’s a schoolteacher of one of the people in the film, or it could be somebody that was a detective that investigated the murder.

“Maybe it’s just our background as documentarians, but my creative partner Mark [Smerling] and I said that the first thing we ought to do is try to understand the story. People you talk to in Hollywood will say that somebody has written an article about it already if it’s a big case or a famous story, and so all you have to do is go buy the article, and then you can write the screenplay from the article. But we said we didn’t know if that was really going to satisfy us, because what we’re trying to do is get to some universal truth,” Jarecki added.

While both this film and “Friedmans” deal with Jewish families, Jarecki said he doesn’t think the essence of “All Good Things” is in any way exclusively Jewish.

“I think that’s an aspect of it, but there’s certainly a universality to this story that has more to do with class and worship of things like power and money, perhaps to the exclusion of love and faith.”

Love is very much at the core of “Barney’s Version,” which depicts some 40 years in the life of Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), a seemingly average man, as he goes through the various stages of life we all experience: births, marriages, deaths. The film begins its Los Angeles engagement Jan. 14, with a one-week Oscar qualifying run that starts Dec. 3.

Paul Giamatti, left, and Dustin Hoffman in “Barney’s Version,” opening in L.A. Jan. 14.

Giamatti described his character as a very particular kind of Everyman who is driven by an uncontainable degree of passion. “I think he’s got this enormous amount of romantic vitality and energy in him that he doesn’t know how to control, and he tries to fit into a box, into a much more bourgeois, middle-class box than he thought he was probably going to fit into in his life, but he does. And I think he’s just bursting at the seams all the time with this kind of romantic view of things and this vitality that takes hold of things all the time, but he lives in a civilized world, so he can’t be an animal.  He’d like to be, but he can’t be, so there’s a lot of tension.”

The film is based on a novel by the late author Mordecai Richler and is primarily set in the Jewish community of Montreal, Quebec. It is a world that producer Robert Lantos described as rather isolated from the mainstream. 

“There’s a lot of overt anti-Semitism, historically, in Quebec society. It’s not palpable like it was when I first moved to Montreal and started living there. In 1963, it was still around. Now it’s kind of gone more underground to the extent that it’s still there. But there’s a history of that that doesn’t exist in America. It doesn’t exist in the rest of Canada, either,” Lantos said.

According to Lantos, Richler was the enfant terrible of the Jewish community in his youth because he kept making fun of the Jewish elite, while in the novelist’s more mature years he took on the Quebec separatist, nationalist movement. The producer first encountered Richler’s work when he read “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” which was compulsory reading in high school in Montreal.  When he saw that book made into a movie, he realized that he, too, could make films. His relationship with Richler was formed in the early 1980s, when Lantos produced the adaptation of the novelist’s book, “Joshua Then and Now.” The producer credits Richler with being a seminal influence on his own life and work.

“He was the most loyal friend you could possibly have. He was a loyal father and husband. He was somebody you did not want as an enemy, because he was incredibly vengeful, and would never, ever, let a grudge go. He would hold on to grudges for life. He had an extraordinary dry and wonderful sense of humor. His knife cut real sharp, and the pen was his knife. So, if he went to town on a character, he would carve him up like the finest sushi chef and spare nothing. Mordecai was a wonderful satirist, one of the great satirists of all time, and he wrote about that which he knew,” Lantos said.

Lantos noted that a great deal of Richler is in the character of Barney Panofsky, who is given to behaving outrageously, as he does during his wedding to his second wife (Minnie Driver), depicted as a kind of “Jewish princess.” 

“She’s well off, from a good family, and he certainly was an ambitious guy who just landed in this city after being in Europe as a young man. Then she gets him integrated into a kind of upscale Jewish community, so it was a marriage of convenience, and she’s also attractive. And then, bang! Right there, he meets the love of his life.

“Now, what most people would do in that circumstance is take notice and keep going, and move on, and not linger, and not do anything about it,” Lantos continued. “Barney Panofsky runs out of his wedding and chases this woman that he has just met onto a train. Now, it’s something I certainly would have fantasized about doing, and I think many do, but it’s something very few would actually attempt. That’s sort of the character that he is.”

The woman he chases, Miriam (Rosamund Pike), eventually becomes his third wife and the love of his life. However, seemingly because he can’t help himself, Barney manages to wreck his dream marriage. 

“I think how we destroy the things that we love is an important theme in the movie,” mused director Richard Lewis. “This is a love story, as far as I’m concerned, and one of the themes that I was interested in conveying … is the idea that love comes in all shapes and sizes, and you never know when it’s going to hit you, and it’s thoroughly inappropriate, most of the time. And I think that the idea that when it happens, it happens, is something that I kind of believe in. That happened in my life, too, so I think that that’s a theme in the movie as well.”

“Little Fockers,” opening Dec. 22, is the third film in a series about Gaylord “Greg” Focker (Ben Stiller), a Jewish male nurse who marries Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo),  the daughter of an upper-echelon WASP couple, Jack and Dina Byrnes (Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner). The first in the series, “Meet the Parents,” established the culture clash inherent in the blending of two families from very different backgrounds, with De Niro’s character, an ex-CIA agent, distrusting and intimidating his potential son-in-law.

The second installment, “Meet the Fockers,” had the WASP Byrnes family meeting Bernie and Roz Focker (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand), the Jewish parents of the intended groom, in Florida. After a series of mishaps, De Niro’s character finally accepts the other family, and the young couple gets married.

In “Little Fockers,” Greg and Pam have been married 10 years and will be celebrating the birthday of their twins. When Greg takes a job with a drug company to bring in extra income, Jack once again begins to doubt his son-in-law’s worthiness.

The main character in our final recommendation is plagued with conflict about her own worthiness as a dancer.

Natalie Portman stars in “Black Swan,” opening in L.A. Dec. 3. Photo by Niko Tavernisea.

“Black Swan,” in Los Angeles theaters Dec. 3, stars Israeli-born Natalie Portman as a young ballerina slowly driven mad in her quest for perfection after being cast in a ballet that presents her with agonizing physical, emotional and artistic challenges.

Portman plays Nina, a dancer with a New York ballet company, who is given the lead role in “Swan Lake,” replacing prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder).  The part calls for a dancer who can project both the innocence and purity of the White Swan, an easy task for Nina, and the dark sensuality of the Black Swan, a quality that eludes her. In addition to the torture of trying to meet the demands of the role, Nina has to contend with a controlling mother (Barbara Hershey), whose own ambitions as a dancer were thwarted, and a new company member, a potential rival named Lily (Mila Kunis), who is the embodiment of the Black Swan. As she struggles to find the required darkness in her soul, Nina begins an emotional descent that may well destroy her.

The film is replete with dazzling dance sequences, and, at the same time, it embodies an atmosphere of genuine psychological terror.

Director Darren Aronofsky manages to create an ambience of sublime beauty while also conveying the arduousness of a ballet dancer’s life and work.  He also puts the audience members inside Nina’s psyche, making it difficult to distinguish between the real and the unreal as Nina goes through a series of delusions.

Though there are no Jewish elements in the story, the production represents a collaboration of creative artists with Jewish roots, from Brooklyn-born Aronofsky to the four female stars: Portman was born in Jerusalem to an Israeli doctor and an American housewife, the latter currently Portman’s agent. Kunis comes from Kiev, USSR (now Ukraine), and is of Jewish parentage. Ryder, born Winona Horowitz to a Jewish father and Buddhist mother, has reportedly referred to herself as Jewish. Hershey was born Barbara Lynn Herzstein and is the daughter of a Jewish father and a Presbyterian mother of Irish descent.

Happy holiday movie-going!

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