Thursday, November 28, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.16: Martin Scorsese's Casino

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 82/A-

It’s easy to see Casino as a Goodfellas rehash, given how many common elements the two have: Robert De Niro (in his most recent Scorsese collaboration) as a coolheaded criminal, Joe Pesci as a psychotic one, a rise-and-fall storyline following the mob, and a kinetic rush of a narrative. Here’s the thing: those elements still make for a pretty good movie, and there are more than enough differences to justify Casino’s existence. Where the earlier film emphasized the guilt and paranoia that comes with the downfall, Casino is a movie about how excess and greed leads to it.

1973: Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro) is a brilliant sports handicapper working for the Chicago and Midwestern Mafia, and he’s sent to Las Vegas to essentially take over the Tangiers Casino. The group sends along Sam’s childhood friend, enforcer Nicholas “Nicky” Santoro (Joe Pesci), to protect him, but Nicky sees a chance to take over the whole town and become the de facto boss of Las Vegas. His exploits make things harder for Ace, and it doesn’t get any easier when Ace falls for Ginger (Sharon Stone), a beautiful hustler who’s still stuck on her sleazy pimp Lester Diamond (James Woods) even after she and Ace marry.

Casino takes the style of Goodfellas to its logical conclusion: it’s all mob hits, stabbings, shootings, domestic disputes, ins-and-outs of the criminal world, rushing narrative, and Joe Pesci swearing (it’s on the top five list of films with the most frequent use of the word “fuck”). Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker tie together the process and details of the casino game with the criminal process of Pesci’s world with aplomb, showing where they intersect (Ace catching a couple of card cheats and dragging them to the back, where a hammer and a table saw await) and where they diverge (Pesci stabbing someone in the throat with a pen for almost no reason), all without losing narrative drive. For a three hour movie, Casino barely seems to be an hour long, which says a lot for how fascinating Scorsese makes the world. The added playfulness in the narration (switching from De Niro to Pesci to, in a key moment, Frank Vincent) only helps.

He’s also aided by cinematographer Robert Richardson, who gives the film a different look than Goodfellas. Where the earlier film benefited from Michael Ballahus’s heavy use of shadows and lush color, Casino pops off the screen with the shiny, gaudy color and light of Las Vegas. This is a world of excess, and the way Richardson lights the sets and costumes only accentuates the beautiful tackiness. It’s even more effective when Scorsese and Richardson head out to the desert, the wide vistas and barren plains (reflected in De Niro’s sunglasses) showing what’s really out in Las Vegas beneath all of the greed: death.

The film is less performance-driven than Goodfellas, which is slightly to its detriment. It’s more process-oriented than emotion-oriented, and while De Niro and Pesci both put in very good work as the cold perfectionist Ace and the ambitious psycho kingpin Nicky, neither really surprise the way they had in the past. Still, they’re more than effective, and they’re aided by Sharon Stone in what’s likely the best performance of her career. Ginger represents a new female dynamic in a Scorsese film, a streetwise woman who knows how to get her way but who isn’t prepared for what living with a control-freak like Ace means: total lack of trust on both sides (even as Ace stresses how important it is), unlimited access to drugs and money but loss of privileges because of it. Ginger’s not a total victim: she’s a greedy character who’s more than willing to play with fire (see: sleeping with Nicky), but she’s the true tragic figure in the film.

The film’s tale of greed, hubris, and ego taking down powerful figures is a quintessential American story, one that Scorsese modeled specifically on Raoul Walsh’s classic The Roaring Twenties, with more than a few dashes of both Howard Hawks’s Scarface and Brian De Palma’s beautifully garish remake. There’s something exciting about the people at the center of this world, no matter how terrible their actions are (Michael Glover Smith's take on White City Cinema really hammers this home well).

Pesci’s early narration regarding how “we fucked it all up” establishes the mournful tone beneath all of the razzle-dazzle and blood. It’s a film about men who have and lose everything: Pesci goes from ambitious upstart to bloated, egotistical, coked-out mess that the bosses from back home are more than happy to take out. Ginger goes from hustler who can take it all to a woman who can’t handle it. Even Ace, who escapes Vegas after Nicky’s double-cross, winds up back where he started, living but hardly at the level he was once at, the score from Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt playing him out to a sad conclusion.

So what separates Casino not only from Goodfellas, but from its influences? To me, there’s a distinct parallel between Scorsese’s tale of Las Vegas and his own experiences as a member of the New Hollywood movement (albeit with fewer heads crushed in vices…maybe). Scorsese eats, sleeps, and breaths film just like Ace does gambling. They’re both perfectionists who often let relationships go to hell for the sake of their work – the scene where Ace bothers a cook for not putting enough blueberries in the muffins is a particularly nice touch on this count.

There’s a lot in Nicky’s ambitious outsider who doesn’t play by the rules that reminds me of Scorsese (as well as Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino), from the increase in profile to the coked up excess of the later parts of the film. Here, Nicky trying to put together a new, more dangerous kind of Vegas is particularly nice, not to mention his complete lack of respect for authority (another New Hollywood trait). Even the time periods line up, with the 70s as a highpoints and the 80s as a megalomaniac’s comedown. Ace says that Nicky really changed out there, but didn’t they all? I’m not going to act like this is a key to unlock the puzzle- the film works with or without this information. But it’s a fascinating parallel, especially as Ace finishes talking about the corporations who took over the town and made it a less dangerous, less interesting place. “Today it looks like Disneyland.”

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