Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Weapons of Mass Corruption

The news is filled with stories about political corruption. But rarely do we get to put a face on the forces behind such corruption.
Two movies opening this week put clearly recognizable faces on the forces of corruption. Although one is a human face and the other an avatar, neither one speaks well for the sloppiness of American politics.

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If, for some severely misguided reason, you choose to sit through Casino Jack, let me suggest that you surround yourself with paper towels, sanitary wipes, and anything else that will help remove the suspicion that even a microscopic trace of the egomania, delusions of grandeur, pathological greed, overweening sense of entitlement, and smug self-righteousness that runs rampant throughout this poorly-written film might have landed on you. Based on the hubristic shenanigans of real live white trash Republicans, the school of smarmy scumbags (led by Jack Abramoff) that swims through a cesspool of social climbing slime will, at the very least, make you want to wash away their toxic waste as if their mere presence onscreen constituted a dangerous exposure to hazardous materials.

Directed by George Hickenlooper (who died several weeks prior to the film's release), Casino Jack brings to mind the group of hot-headed Young Republicans who thought they could easily produce a late night comedy talk show for Fox News that would be every bit as funny -- if not funnier -- than the work done by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They failed miserably at their task, as does this film which, had they been smart, should have been titled Gonifs Gone Wild.

As written by Norman Snider, the movie's pathetic screenplay quickly sinks to the bottom of the barrel with lines rivaling "Yonder lies the village of my muddah" (from 1960's Spartacus) and "The emperor wants to fuck you now" from that 1981 classic, Centurians of Rome (the gay porn film that was purportedly made with some of the $2 million stolen by a Brink's security guard in 1980).

There is one worthwhile moment in Casino Jack, though. It's an obvious writer's fantasy in which, during his Senate hearing, Jack Abramoff throws a tantrum exposing Senator John McCain as the corrupt hypocrite and hardened turd that the Arizonan asshole has become. But since McCain does a better job of making the public aware of his false patriotism every time he opens his rancid mouth and speaks with forked tongue, why compete with the Oracle at Belfry?

Although Hickenlooper directed a fairly stellar cast, the strongest moments in Casino Jack come where you might least expect them. Kevin Spacey does a lot of shouting, impersonating movie stars, and delivering the kind of slick shtick that has made him famous for being Kevin Spacey.

But it is Barry Pepper's portrayal of Michael Scanlon (Tom DeLay's former Communications Director turned lobbyist) that holds the film's true emotional center. Scanlon's eventual betrayal by his girlfriend (Rachelle Lefevre) turns out to be the movie's one carefully calculated and cold-blooded attempt to crawl out of the political primordial muck and make a desperately disillusioned grab for the moral high ground.

Barry Pepper as lobbyist Michael Scanlon

Supporting roles are filled by Kelly Preston as Pam Abramoff, Jeffrey R. Smith as Grover Norquist, Daniel Kash as Konstantine "Gus" BoulisChristian Campbell as conservative Christian activist/weasel Ralph Reed, and Spencer Garrett as the fatuous Tom DeLay.

I was surprised to see David Fraser cast as an extremely short Karl Rove (in real life Rove and George W. Bush are almost the same height). Veteran actor Maury Chaykin scores some nice moments as a gangster named Big Tony.

Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) yelling at Adam Kitan (Jon Lovitz)

While Hickenlooper and Snider attempt to transform Casino Jack into a snarky political romp like 2009's superb In The Loop, (a deliciously iconoclastic British spoof), the true mark of this film's overall sleaze is that Jon Lovitz (as the low-life king of mattress sales, Adam Kidan) actually delivers a surprising sense of integrity and class to a film that tries much too hard to make lobbyists seem like undeserving and misunderstood victims of their own avarice and ethical egoism.

Having lived through the disgustingly corrupt era of the Bush administration, my gut reaction to watching Casino Jack was that I never liked those people, anyway. But don't let that stop you from wasting your precious time and hard-earned money on this film (I guarantee it's nowhere as bad as The Nutcracker in 3D). Here's the trailer:

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Several weeks ago, while discussing America's growing disparity in wealth distribution and how the rich have managed to isolate themselves from the troubles faced by the middle class, I wondered what could possibly happen that would once again level the playing field. Recalling the random strikes in the early years of the AIDS crisis, my first thoughts focused on the potentially gruesome side effects of chemical or biological warfare.

But then I remembered a 1992 thriller called Sneakers (starring Robert Redford, Stanley Poitier, Dan Ackroyd, and Ben Kingsley) and realized that massive sabotage of computer technology will probably be the chosen tool.  

The plot of Sneakers involves the white-knuckled race to capture the secret code of one of the world's most important encryption keys. In the film's final scene, a television news reporter reveals that, in a bizarrely coincidental string of events, the Republican National Committee has somehow managed to misplace its funds and been forced into bankruptcy while organizations like The United Negro College Fund, Amnesty International, and Greenpeace have mysteriously registered financial gains as a result of donations from unanticipated -- and extremely generous -- anonymous sources.

One of this month's predictions about the big stories to expect in 2011 includes the news media switching from concentrating on search engine optimization to social media optimization.  However, with the growth of embedded malware and the description of one of this month's newest Facebook scams, I would strongly advise Janet Napolitano (the United States Secretary of Homeland Security) to sit herself down and watch a new Japanese animé film entitled Summer Wars.  

With Mark Zuckerberg having recently been named as Time Magazine's Person of the Year, and The Social Network having been hailed as one of the most important films of 2010, Facebook's controversial privacy policies take on surprising relevance in what should otherwise be a fairly innocent animated feature film.

Written by Satako Ukedera and directed by Mamoru Hosoda (who did such a beautiful job with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), Summer Wars chronicles the catastrophe that occurs when a malicious piece of artificial intelligence software obtains the encryption code for OZ, Japan's largest and most powerful social network service.

Whereas Facebook is still in the early stages of attracting business accounts, OZ is an international virtual world that handles all kinds of business transactions for government as well as the private sector. Although OZ promotes itself as being totally secure (users interact through their avatars), the events in this film offer a pretty good look at what might happen if hackers managed to sabotage a nation's electric grid or compromised critical government networks.

The avatar for Love Machine

Set in Ueda in Japan's Nagano Prefecture, Summer Wars weaves together several story lines that will appeal to different segments of its audience:
  • Cute teenage girl Natsuki Shinohara hires Kenji Koiso (an 11th grade math genius) to pose as her boyfriend during a family reunion which will celebrate the 90th birthday of her great grandmother, Sakae Jinnouchi.
  • Part of the movie focuses on how "the family that eats together, stays together" while one relative continues to watch a local baseball game on television (totally unaware of the crisis happening around her).
  • Natsuki's uncle Wabisuke is the prodigal son who went abroad to study in America, became a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and designed an artificial intelligence software program named "Love Machine" that he sold to the U.S. Intelligence Community. After losing touch with his family, Wabisuke has returned home depressed and disillusioned.
  • When Kenji solves a 2,056-digit math riddle sent to his cell phone, it allows Love Machine to break through OZ's supposedly impenetrable security wall. As Love Machine rapidly hijacks millions of OZ accounts (including those that hold data for everything from online shopping to the launch codes for guided missiles) all hell breaks loose.
  • Demonstrating the stark differences between today's analog and virtual worlds, Natsuki's cousin Kazuma Ikezawa (whose avatar is King Kazma) tries to engage Love Machine in a winner-takes-all game of Hanafuda while the 90-year-old Sakae Jinnouchi uses her handwritten address book and rotary phone to call in as many favors as possible.

King Kazma (cousin Kazuma's avatar)

Summer Wars is essentially about hackers and their potential to be arch villains and/or cultural heroes. High school math nerds like Kenji, his friend Takashi Sakuma (and dedicated gamers like Kazuma and Natsuki) are transformed into heroes while the careless abuse of U.S. intelligence turns out to be a hugely destructive power in need of better risk management.

While the pixelation and color renderings in Summer Wars are absolutely gorgeous, there is a much darker story here that -- in addition to providing an action packed scenario -- offers a model lesson about privacy issues and computer security. This film is definitely worth your time. Here's the trailer:

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