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‘Casino Jack’ / ’4:44 Last Day on Earth’

U.S. political corruption will bring about the end of the world

by Giovanni Fazio

As late-stage capitalism enters its terminal phase, democracy sees an epic fail, giving way to a kind of corporate plutocracy. The problem is all too clear: Government, in just about every country you can think of, has been bought and sold.

Most people are clued in to this depressing reality, and you may well wonder, do we really need the movies to rub our noses in it? Well, in the case of “Casino Jack,” the answer is a resounding “yes.” Based on the Jack Abramoff scandal of George W. Bush-era Washington — which involved a web of influence peddling, cozy ties between lobbyists and politicians, and millions siphoned off from the casinos on Native American reservations — “Casino Jack” could easily have been a somber, educational autopsy of K Street corruption.

The presence of Kevin Spacey in the lead should have tipped me, though: “Casino Jack” is a farce, a wallow in the mire of dirty Washington politics that manages to find the sheer ridiculousness in this tale of hubris and epic greed.

Spacey, always a welcome presence on the screen, is a natural fit for the role of super-lobbyist Abramoff, a Harvard grad and conservative think-tank hustler who sunk his talons deep into the Republican establishment. Spacey flashes his trademark smarmy insincerity as often as you’d expect, but he also vacillates between doting husband and father who believes his own blather about philanthropy, and foaming-at-the-mouth F-bomb anger when he senses someone is disrupting the flow of his multimillion-dollar retainers.

Spacey notes the essential tool in the lobbyist’s kit is acting, putting on a performance, getting people to buy the line you’re selling, as Abramoff, a former movie producer (of Dolph Lundgren’s anticommunist shooter “Red Scorpion”) surely knew. As the character of Jack says in the film, “Washington is Hollywood with ugly faces,” and there’s some truth for you.

In his meetings with prospective clients, Jack makes it clear that the system in Washington is “pay to play” — put up the money, or the vote will swing to somebody else who does. The film’s most telling scene comes when a senator takes to the floor to launch a tirade penned by someone in Jack’s office to pressure a reluctant business partner; this senator winds up in jail, but the film suggests that we can only wonder how many others didn’t.

Director George Hickenlooper (“Factory Girl”) passed away shortly after finishing this film, and it’s a shame, because this noted documentary director was just finding his footing in features. He pushes the tempo on “Casino Jack” fast and hard, using a vignette-oriented style familiar from other backroom peeks into American corruption, films such as “Casino” or “Blow.” The casting is brilliant, not just Spacey, but the volatile Barry Pepper (“Saving Private Ryan”) as his brash, two-mistresses-and-a-McMansion assistant, and Jon Lovitz as the mannerless, hard-luck schmuck they install as frontman for a shady offshore casino deal.

Despite the customary phrasing that the film was “inspired by real events,” Hickenlooper must have had some damn good lawyers on the case, because the film names names every chance it gets; presumably the stench of association with Abramoff — who served four years of a six-year jail sentence — makes it unlikely any of them will want to drag that period back into the headlines.

Climate change has largely become a nonissue in the States — thanks to exactly the sort of pay-to-play politics depicted in “Casino Jack” as practiced by Big Oil donors — but New York director Abel Ferrara’s film “4:44 Last Day on Earth” takes as its premise, what if Al Gore was right? What if the catastrophic tipping point event comes sooner than anyone thinks?

“4:44″ examines Earth’s last day; everyone knows that the end will come at 4:44 a.m., and the film examines how one downtown boho couple, Cisco and Skye (played by Willem Dafoe and Ferrara’s own partner Shanyn Leigh) spend their final hours together. It’s mostly a one-roomer: She paints abstract canvases on the floor of their loft, he Skypes his friends, they make love repeatedly, they squabble over his ex-wife, they argue over him (an ex-junkie) shooting up one last time, and — this being New York — they even get Chinese takeout on the brink of the Apocalypse.

New York as a whole is rather quiet, which may come as a surprise to anyone who remembers the looting that greeted the 1979 blackout but not those who recall the calmer 2003 blackout; this may reflect a new sense of community in post-9/11 NYC, or it may just reflect Ferrara’s low budget, which has none of the sort of special effects that Lars von Trier employed in “Melancholia.” “4:44″ is less a sci-fi film and more a director coming to terms with his own mortality, and while long stretches of it seem pretty rambling (Skype on film is less than compelling), it definitely imposes its own vibe.

Sex, heroin, redemption -it’s the typical Ferrara brew and he’s done it better before (“Bad Lieutenant,” “The Funeral”), but fans of his recognizably scuzzy downtown style may enjoy this.