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A movie directed by Martin Scorsese

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The Gangster Opera

  • Jul 15, 2007
Pros: So that's what happens to my money... Interesting. Very interesting indeed

Cons: One gallon of blood... Two gallons... Three gallons... Alright, on to the next victim!

The Bottom Line: Like the uncensored version? See the censored version on USA!!! It's FUNNY!!!

In the last ten years, Martin Scorsese’s reputation as “America’s Greatest Living Filmmaker” really hit the skids, didn’t it? After the gangster movie classic GoodFellas and the brilliant remake of Cape Fear, things just seemed to go downhill. First, he gives us the painstakingly overproduced Age of Innocence. Although that didn’t blow up in his face like it darn well should have, he followed it up with an entertaining and interesting but mostly pointless imitation of one of his own movies-Casino, which copied much of GoodFellas. No one could tell you a thing about his 1997 film Kundun because it was a dud at the box office. In 1999, we all got a good look at his brilliantly directed but otherwise terrible and confusing Bringing Out the Dead. Hopefully, he’ll redeem himself with Gangs of New York, which I have yet to see.

Before I go on sorting out the pros and cons of Casino, you should understand where the angles of this review are coming from. First, I’m indebted to Casino for turning me on to two sub-genres of movies: Gangster movies and Martin Scorsese movies. Later, when I started taking film classes myself (partially because of Scorsese), I was forced to dissect Casino in a class debate about whether or not it was good or bad. I would have been perfectly happy calling Casino another timeless gangster masterpiece for the ages, but you tend to look at films differently when you start taking mental notes and writing out the flaws on a notepad. That little debate (which I won, by the way. I debated the cons) changed my view on the movie a little. While it still entertains and interests me, calling it a timeless gangster masterpiece for the ages would be like saying everyone will respect and revere Britney Spears for her music 15 years from now.

Many Scorsese buffs are willing to write off Casino as GoodFellas goes to Las Vegas. While I can certainly understand that assesment, Casino, to me, feels more like Scorsese imitating himself. If a third rate film school dropout had directed this thing and called it a tribute to Scorsese, it would have turned out the same way. That’s my take on it. The difference is that Scorsese directed his own imitation, so this film got written off as a hackneyed and formulaic attempt to recreate the magic that Scorsese, his stars and his screenwriter performed with GoodFellas. Had our third rate hack directed Casino, the film would have been applauded and our hack would have been Tinseltown’s newest golden boy.

The plot of Casino (which is apparently based on something that actually happened) revolves around Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a professional gambler who becomes so good at what he does that the mob bestows control of the Tangiers casino on him. Since the mob is notoriously paranoid and the leaders want their little black bag stuffed with cash every month, they send out gangster Nicky Santoro to act as Ace’s personal bodyguard. With Ace overseeing the operations at the Tangiers and Nicky making sure no one touches him, the boys back home are able to get their filthy hands on money skimmed off the top of the casino’s earnings.

Herein lies a little problem. Sam and Nicky were good friends way back in the day. Nicky is a bit of a wildman, and he looks at sincity like his own personal playground. And since Sam is a Vegas bigshot who rubs elbows with the way, way, way higher-ups, Nicky figures he has insurance for all the scams he pulls. With that thought firmly planted in his head, Nicky proceeds to smoke off the upperclassmen in every way possible. He robs banks, shoots up cops’ houses, abuses casino workers and kills anyone who looks at him crosseyed. His antics begin to get Sam into trouble, and Sam is denied a liscense to run the casino. Adding fuel to the fire is Sam’s marriage to a former hooker named Ginger, who not only proceeds to suck Sam’s bank account dry but spends a small fortune paying her ex-pimp. Sam is perfectly in control of everything at first, but between Nicky’s crime sprees, Ginger’s increasing alcoholism and all the stuff going on at the casino, it isn’t long before the walls begin to close in. The FBI learns of the embezzlement, and the amount of money being taken by the Mafia every month is getting smaller. It inevitably blows up in Sam’s face rather spectacularly. It’s like Sam narrates in the beginning, “We were given Paradise on Earth, but somehow we f*cked it all up”.

Casino does a lot of imitations of GoodFellas. If you want to call Casino GoodFellas without Ray Liotta, no one will blame you. Since Liotta isn’t here this time around, we’re left with Jimmy and Tommy doing the narrating. This is an accurate statement because Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci basically reprise their original roles in GoodFellas. Will anyone debate with me that Sam Rothstein isn’t Jimmy Conway without the occaisional violent outbursts? Or that Nicky isn’t just a more psychotic version of Tommy? How about Sharon Stone taking over Lorraine Bracco’s role as the mob wife, only with alcoholism and a penchant for abusing her kids? The movie is about the rise and fall of a group of people get to the top then get into hot water trying to stay there. Same director, same stars, same screenwriter (Nicholas Pileggi).

None of that really matters, though, because GoodFellas was a good movie and Martin Scorsese mostly succeeds in recreating much of the chemistry that made it so memorable. What makes GoodFellas superior to Casino is its lack of pointless, dragging scenes and subplots. GoodFellas may have been around two and a half hours long, but every scene in the movie was essential to fully flesh out the story. Casino clocks in at just under three hours, but so much of it is pointless that you can easily get up, go to the bathroom, make a sandwich and get back to the movie without really missing anything. There’s a subplot featuring a slimy senator played by Kevin Pollack that’s wasted. Ginger’s unexplained need to keep paying her pimp has no purpose. And several scenes are marred in ultraviolence that ultimately serves to just milk Scorsese’s direction. The notorious case of this would be Pesci putting some guy’s head in a vice and then cutting his throat. In another scene, Pesci repeatedly stabs a guy with a pen while De Niro drones on about how violent Pesci’s character is.

Narration and an eclectic mix of scene-descriptive music are also things that Casino has in common with GoodFellas. But GoodFellas was reserved in its use of both-they were there to set up the scenes, then they blended into the scene and disappeared into the background so well that you never noticed. In Casino, the narratives of De Niro and Pesci both compete for space not only with each other but with the music, and at times it overwhelms anything that’s happening onscreen. You could listen to almost the entire first half of the film on a cd and still know almost everything going on. The narration is very interesting, but it would have been even more interesting had Sharon Stone been given a chance to tell her side of the story.

Since Casino is based on a true story, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the film’s descriptions of the wheelings and dealings that happen inside casinos. In the earliest scenes, Martin Scorsese makes it a priority to take us through the Casino using his trademark tracks and sweeps. Through De Niro’s narration, we are given a straight-to-the-core account of the kinds of things happening to our collected money in the backrooms. Mixing the stories with the documentary style presentation throughout the first half is one of the things Casino does right. Scorsese respects us enough to not repeat any of the casino information in the second half, and so he sets the descriptions aside and lets the story take center stage for the rest of the movie. It’s almost ironic that the first half is more interesting than the second half. In the second half, we finally get to the meat of the story, the turbulence that made the Tangiers empire come crashing down. We get more insight into Sam’s personal life, and we see the transformation of Ginger from trophy bloodsucker to alcoholic abuser of child and all-around slag. The rift between Sam and Nicky develops, and the walls just start to close right in. It’s all portrayed so flawlessly that you may begin to feel your own walls close in.

Aside from the usually great De Niro and Pesci, the cast of Casino contains a veritable who’s who of supporting actors. The aforementioned senator is portrayed by Kevin Pollack. Don Rickles plays a role, though his role escapes me for the time being. The surprising standout of the cast is Sharon Stone, whose unsympathetic, rags-to-riches-back to rags trophy wife turned enough heads at the Academy for them to grant her an Oscar nomination. But everyone else takes a backseat to James Woods, who plays Ginger’s former pimp Lester, a guy who the Ginger that Rothstein knew “wouldn’t have looked at him twice.”

Martin Scorsese’s direction is mostly on par with most of his classics like GoodFellas, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Although we never see a classic tracker like the infamous kitchen walk from GoodFellas, there’s plenty in Casino to glamorize organized crime. Slow motion scenes of shootings and the general behavior of Santoro both make the Mafia look almost like fun, provided you’re not on the recieving end of it. Rothstein has a personal golf course, carries a cigarette holder and adorns his trophy wife with enough jewelry to make the Queen of Britain jealous. Many of the scenes inside the Tangiers are tinted in shades of red, and Las Vegas just seems to call out your name until you book the next flight. On the other hand, much of the violence is dragged out and I’ll even go as far as to say a bit exaggerated. Most of the violence in GoodFellas was spontaneous, and when it happened, it occured and then it was over. But GoodFellas was so light that it had to be funny at times. Casino is much more operatic, but that didn’t mean Scorsese had to stretch out the violence the way he did. One guy gets his head crushed in a vice and then has his throat slit. Much of the Mafia-glamorizing slow motion violence was unnecessary. And I could have lived without seeing Nicky get beaten with baseball bats and then buried alive.

The list of GoodFellas tributes goes on. But what better gangster movie to imitate? Casino may not be a timeless Mafia masterpiece for the ages, but it delivers the gangster goods in a solid and entertaining fashion. Just don’t rent it expecting to see another Godfather, Mean Streets or GoodFellas.


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review by . January 28, 2012
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***1/2 out of ****    "Casino" is a fascinating film; in which there are many characters involved who live, breath, and absolutely love money, as well as the things that it can buy and the places that it can get he/she who has as much of it as they use. A few of these people presented in the film may partake in the smoking of cigarettes - or perhaps the consumption of alcoholic beverages - but their home is on The Strip, and their true addiction rests in the slot machines and …
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I have seen this film to many times to count and I am yet to become even remotely sick of it. The acting is flawless, story flows at a great pace from the hours it generates on the screen. Fans of Scorsese, DeNiro, and Pesci should already know what this film consist of. The leading actors mention above, are all at their usual greatness, but the pleasant surprise from this movie is the electrifying performance by Sharon Stone, (who won a Golden Globe award and got an Oscar nomination for her role) …
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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Martin Scorsese, one of America's most influential filmmakers, returns to the world of mobsters, greed, and excess that he explored so compellingly in 1990's GOODFELLAS. Set in the 1970s and reveling in the minute details of how Las Vegas casinos operate, the film chronicles the rise and fall of casino manager Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro). As the king of his domain, Ace efficiently runs the business and regularly sends lots of cold cash to his bosses. Helping him keep the casino's employees and customers honest is his best friend, Nicky (Joe Pesci), a violent sociopath. Although Ace aims to run a relatively respectable casino, the volatile Nicky wants to take over the entire gambling mecca, and when Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), a seasoned Vegas hustler, enters the picture, Ace and Nicky's friendship is complicated even further. As drugs and alcohol become a bigger part of Ginger's life, all three are eventually brought down by their own greed and blind ambition. CASINO shares many similarities with G...
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