Judge Joe Armenio has never been to Vegas, but he did win $50 once in a March Madness pool.
No one stays at the top forever.
There's an article by Kent Jones in the latest Film Comment, in which he wonders why cinephiles tend to revere classic filmmakers who focus on similar themes and situations from movie to movie, like Ozu or Hitchcock, while we criticize living directors who do the same thing, like Wes Anderson or the Dardenne brothers or Martin Scorsese. It's a good point, and is relevant to the case of Scorsese's Casino, which upon its release in 1995 was blasted for being a retread of 1990's Goodfellas, as if having a first-rate filmmaker and first-rate actors deal again with material that they found invigorating and engaging was somehow a burden on the audience. Casino was also criticized for being too abrasive, too long, too shapeless and, in general, an excessive mess. Casino is, for me, a brilliant film because it's an excessive mess; I love its giddy despair, the way it combines a joy in film technique, in garish images and a darting camera and multilayered sounds, with a view of the world that is essentially downbeat. Among American filmmakers, only Orson Welles is as good as Scorsese at capturing the ways in which life is hilarious and rich and horrible at the same time, and Casino is one of his finest achievements.
This "10th Anniversary Edition" of Casino is, of course, a double-dip; the original release was reviewed here by Judge Nicholas Sylvain back in 1999. The main draw of the new release is a glut of extras, contained on the B-side of this flipper disc, which contain some interesting nuggets but are mostly repetitive and irritating. If you want to know the specific ways in which they're irritating, please read on; if not, suffice it to say that there's not much here that justifies a second purchase.
Facts of the Case
Casino is based on a book (unfinished when the film was made) by true-crime author Nicholas Pileggi, who collaborated with Scorsese on Goodfellas. The story concerns a gambler named Lefty Rosenthal (name changed to Ace Rothstein in the movie, where he is played by Robert DeNiro) who took control of a major Las Vegas casino in the 1970s, ran various scams by which midwestern gang bosses profited from Vegas gambling, and married a volatile, drug-addicted former hustler (played by Sharon Stone). Ultimately he's undone by his relationship with a boyhood friend, an unpredictable, violent thug who attempts to create a mob empire in Vegas (named Nicky Santoro in the movie and played by, of course, Joe Pesci). Scorsese also gives us an anthropological study of casino culture, detailing the intricate and often violent ways in which money was made.
In the film's opening sequence, Ace appears to be blown up in a car and floats into hell against a background of flames, a theme from Bach's Passion According to St. Matthew accompanying his fall; we're alerted already to the presence of some of Scorsese's favorite themes, among them the tension between the sacred and profane, the idea of sin and retribution, the centrality of violence in American life. In a way, as Scorsese says in his commentary, Casino is a sort of Western, the story of Americans advancing into an empty desert, living lawlessly, excessively, violently, and being punished for their transgressions.
Early in the film, the flow of visual and aural information is almost overwhelming; in a rush of voice-over narration (provided by both Ace and Nicky) we're introduced to the major characters, the outlandish setting, and the various tricks by which the casino is run. Often the soundtrack features narration, dialogue, and music at the same time (Scorsese's usual melange of pop hits from the 1950s to the 80s; later, he also makes effective use of Georges Delerue's haunting score from Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt.) The camera is always roaming too, of course, with the extraordinarily complicated tracking and panning of the "count room" shot surpassing even the Copa sequence from Goodfellas.
After the first hour, we get a bit less of the "anthropological" material, except as it relates to Ace's desperate attempts to stay one step ahead of the Gaming Commission that controls his ability to be employed by the casino. The plot then takes over, and it is treated by Scorsese like grand opera, full of shouting matches and life-and-death confrontations and a kind of humor that manages to be both profane and wry at the same time. DeNiro underacts brilliantly, creating a character whose obsessive concern for control and order is both his means to the top and his undoing. For just one example, watch the scene in which he proposes to Ginger, a world of emotions quietly passing across Ace's face in his desperate and ultimately successful attempt to remain stoic. Pesci is, of course, his fearsome self; his greatest virtue, one which Scorsese accentuates, is his unsettling ability to be reprehensible and hilarious at the same time, a quality epitomized by the scene in which, on the verge of a violent outburst, he berates a blackjack dealer while Clarence "Frogman" Henry's ultra-innocuous "Ain't Got No Home" plays on the soundtrack. Back in 1995, Stone was acclaimed for her emotional performance as Ginger; she's fine, although for me, at least, her character lingers in the mind less than Ace and Nicky. Part of that might be Scorsese's fault, as he seems much more engaged with the angst of males (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore being a notable exception). A word should also be said about the supporting cast, featuring James Woods as Ginger's sleazy pimp/ex-boyfriend and Don Rickles (an inspired choice) as the casino manager.
So Casino is a terrific film; why should you go double-dipping? I don't own the original release, but Judge Sylvain didn't have any complaints about the anamorphic transfer or the 5.1 Sound. The new release also features a crisp anamorphic transfer and a 5.1 Surround mix that admirably conveys the film's complicated soundtrack. The primary advantage, then, that the new release would seem to have is its extras. The most substantial of these is Moments With Martin, Scorsese, Sharon Stone, Nicholas Pileggi, and More, which functions like an audio commentary track in that you listen to it over the movie, but it's only occasionally scene-specific and you don't get the sense that the commentators are watching the film as they discuss it. It features, along with Scorsese, Stone and Pileggi, interview clips from producer Barbara De Fina, actor Frank Vincent, and costume designer Rita Ryack. Scorsese is an old hand at commentaries and is typically relaxed and engaging, offering his take on the movie's themes as well as the production process. Sharon Stone probably talks the most, and she's pretty insufferable; it's clear that she considers herself something of a misunderstood artiste, and that working on Casino was the highlight of her career. Hence she describes her experiences on the film with a sort of breathless effusiveness that anyone who's seen more than one episode of Inside the Actors' Studio will recognize. One comes away with the impression that she considers each of her scenes in this movie to be a central moment in the history not only of Acting, but of Civilization itself, and my devoutest wish in the last half hour of the film was that she would please shut up.
On the other side of the flipper disc, we have a series of brief (10 to 20 minutes apiece) documentaries on "The Look," "The Cast and Characters," "The Story," and "After the Filming." These are pretty worthless, in that they consist almost entirely of talking-head interviews, repetitions of what we've already heard Scorsese, De Fina, Pileggi, Stone, et al, say on the commentary track. These are interspersed with stills from the film and some mildly interesting behind-the-scenes clips. The only new footage consists of very brief interviews with Pesci and DeNiro, who don't say a whole lot (and are absent from the rest of the extras).
We also have an NBC news story, which looks like it comes from Dateline, about Las Vegas' mob history, and featuring the city's current mayor, Oscar Goodman, who previously made his living as a defense lawyer, representing such solid citizens as Anthony Spilotro, on whom Pesci's character is based. Goodman says with great dopiness that his clients were all nice guys who never committed a crime in his presence (as if even the basest thug would put someone's head in a vise in front of his lawyer), and the equally dopey NBC reporter doesn't challenge him. The story is not only poorly done, but in its aw-shucks, nostalgic tone, seems to violate the unsettling, violent spirit of the movie that these extras are supposedly helping us to understand.
Finally, Universal has included a History Channel program featuring Nicholas Pileggi, telling the story of Lefty Rosenthal and Anthony Spilotro. It's interesting to see archival footage of Rosenthal and Spilotro, but the program is typically intolerable History Channel hackwork. We spend a lot of time watching ludicrous "re-creations" in which a blond doofus playing Lefty glowers over a blackjack table or argues with a tubby doofus playing Spilotro. All of these "documentaries" were a chore to get through, and prove (as if it needed to be proven) that more extras are not necessarily always better; I think the commentary alone would have been enough.
Like Goodfellas, Casino ends with the protagonist lamenting the loss of the world in which he was a success. Vegas, he says, has cleaned up, become corporate; there's no room for guys like him anymore. Scorsese's achievement is in making us sympathize a bit for the loss of Ace's world even as we are horrified by its violence. That tension, between order and chaos, between sin and virtue, is one which Scorsese never resolves, and which makes his films such rich and unsettling experiences.
Guilty of making me sit through a lot of painful extras. Scorsese's free to go, but Sharon Stone isn't allowed to do commentaries anymore.
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Scales of Justice
• Casino: The Story
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