Forever Oscar's bridesmaid but never his bride, will 2006 finally be the year for Martin Scorsese? As I write this, the latest mob-fest from America's most famous auteur, 'The Departed,' is slowly emerging as the front-runner of this year's Academy Awards race. Though nominations have yet to be announced, it is hard to imagine that Scorsese's biggest critical and commercial success in years won't rack up at least a few nods from the Academy. And while 'The Departed' is clearly not the best fruit borne of a thematic tree Scorsese has been picking from for years, I still say give him that damned Best Director golden statuette already.
Indeed, I'd argue that any Acacdemy wins for Scorsese and 'The Departed' this year will likely be viewed by most Academy voters as make-good prizes for the lack of Academy gold bestowed upon his previous highly-acclaimed "mob operas": 'Mean Streets,' 'GoodFellas' and 'Casino.' But while 'Mean Streets' is considered one of the '70s grittiest classics, and 'GoodFellas' is seen as above reproach as the greatest mob movie ever next to 'The Godfather' series, 'Casino' somehow remains underrated. Sure, any viewer familiar with Scorsese's oeuvre may experience a bit of deja vu, but the freshness of the setting and a newfound infusion of sexual intrigue help offset any stale residue let by 'Casino's borrowed parts.
Beacuse the story's effectiveness absolutely depends on where the characters take us (or, rather, how far they will plummet in debasing themselves), I won't describe too much of the plot beyond the set up. It is 1973 Las Vegas, a time long before the arrival of Celine Dion signaled that city's Disney-fication. Instead, Vegas is a city glittering with greed and smudged with the dirty fingerprints of mob corruption. It is also a hell that welcomes with open arms two rising casino kingpins -- a duo of common thugs that in any other city would be eaten for breakfast by Don Corleone. Lifelong friends Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) and Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) have just switched turf to Las Vegas to make their mark and live the high-life. Crime's answer to Ying and Yang (if the mob mentality had such spiritual dimension), Ace becomes the smooth operator of quasi-legit Tangiers casino, while Nicky takes on the self-appointed role of circus strongman, shaking down the locals when it's time to pay up. But in Scorsese's world everyone has a fatal flaw, and for Ace and Nicky, it will be love -- or for the more cynical, plain old lustful obsession. Never trust a conniving, backstabbing call girl named Ginger McKenna, especially if she looks like Sharon Stone. As the greed, passions and deceptions chip away at Ace and Nicky's boyhood bonds, their dreams threaten to collapse like a house of cards.
They say the odds are never in your favor in Vegas, so one can forgive Scorsese for stacking his deck. I'll admit that in 'Casino' he does borrow, or at least mirrors, the visual fireworks that seemed so fresh in 'GoodFellas.' It doesn't help comparisons that Nicholas Pileggi wrote the scripts for both movies. Each is slick, fast-paced, powered by a period soundtrack of classic tunes and filled with enough bravura camera moves for ten other movies. Yet I remain in the minority of viewers who actually prefer 'Casino' over its more acclaimed cinematic soul brother. Perhaps it is because, unlike 'GoodFellas,' which focused solely on the rise and fall of Henry Hill, here the spiritual corruption is spread equally between Ace and Nicky. And Stone, in a career high as Ginger, proves that she is an even better actress when her legs are crossed. Ginger is the powderkeg that ignites a partnership already on the brink of exploding, which (for my taste) makes 'Casino' a lot more fun and narratively twisty and melodramatic in its excesses than any previous Scorsese flick. How can you not love a movie that features a point-of-view shot through a cocaine straw? And the only thing more fun that watching one mobster in 'GoodFellas' get his is watching two screw each other over for a hooker and a percentage point. It is also nice to see Scorsese spicing up his usual boys club with Stone, who again so "sizzles" up the screen that for once the back-of-the-box proclamation is not mere hyperbole.
Unfortunately, I still have some problems with Scorsese's penchant for onscreen violence. I know, I know, I sound like Michael Medved. Even 'Casino's now-infamous "vice torture" scene notwithstanding, all the bloodletting felt gratuitous long ago. Rather than gingerly applied a la ''The Godfather' to add the proper Grand Guignol-meets-Italian Opera bravura, or -- as Scorsese himself did so effectively in 'Taxi Driver' --- confining it to a single scene of orgiastic release as a legitimate storytelling device, in 'Casino' there seems to be an almost gleeful preoccupation with brutality that I find juvenile (an indulgence that also mars 'GoodFellas' and 'Gangs of New York'). And as great a pair as De Niro and Pesci make onscreen (what ever happened to the latter's career, anyway?), even they seem to overdo the viciousness, less out of necessity than look-at-me-I'm-a-tough-guy grandstanding. We know Pesci's Nicky is as fragile as he is psychopathic, and I understood how his self-possession led to his violent outbursts -- I just didn't need to see every one of them. But even discounting the moments of 'Casino' that I couldn't watch because I was cowering behind my fingertips, I enjoyed the hell out of the rest of it.
Universal's record with catalog remasters on HD DVD has really been quite good. Sure, for every 'Hulk' or 'Dune' we get a 'Field of Dreams,' but in terms of pure averages, the studio is batting a great game. Add 'Casino' to that list of winners; it's all aces, as they would say in Vegas -- I loved this transfer.
The film got a nice restoration for standard-def DVD just last year, and that master serves as the basis for ths film's HD DVD debut. Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1, the image looks glittery and glamorous, thanks both to the high-resolution and Robert Richardson's sterling cinematography. Blacks and strong contrast give the picture real snap, crackle and pop -- I loved watching Scorsese's camera march through the casino floor like that little kid on his big wheel in Kubrick's 'The Shining.' Even minute details (such as dollar amounts on the top of a slot machine or the ugly bow tie on a Blackjack dealer) were sharp and distinct. And yes, during that "the muffin has too many blueberries" scene, you can count each one. Colors are excellent, with rich hues solid and free of noise. Fleshtones are also spot-on, with Sharon Stone never looking more orange and lovely. Sure, I could complain -- some scenes are a bit overly-contrasted with bloomy whites, and shadow delineation can suffer ever-so-slightly due to crushed blacks. But this is minor stuff -- in terms of picture quality, 'Casino' hits the jackpot on HD DVD.
Because he is considered such a visual stylist, it is often overlooked how expertly Martin Scorsese also assembles the soundtracks to his films. More than just the composer he selects (which in the case of 'Casino,' is nobody) or the "songtracks" he creates, the way Scorsese combines and balances the various sonic elements is truly craftsman-like. Though it may not be overpowering like a big action flick, 'Casino' is so finely-attuned it is worth considering as demo material for those who appreciate subtlety over bombast in their home theater soundtracks.
Presented in Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround (English, French and Spanish options are all provided in full 1.5mbps), dynamics are well up to snuff. I was quite surprised how full-bodied and spacious the full frequency range was. From the clear and sparkly highs (no distortion or tinniness here) to the deep low bass, the film really comes alive in the casino scenes. The surrounds really drip with ambiance, from nice discrete sounds directed to individual speakers to great use of songs to create a full 360-degree soundfield. Sure, there are many quieter moments in the movie that are pretty much front and center, but even here there will be the odd bit of atmosphere or nice score bleed to perk things up. Perfectly suited to the subject matter, 'Casino's soundtrack exceeded my expectations.
'Casino' recently got a very spiffy anniversary re-issue on standard-def DVD, with a host a new featurettes boasting up-to-date interviews with all of the film's core principals -- including, of course, Martin Scorsese. However, similar to 'GoodFellas,' there is a little too much redundancy at times for my taste -- as if quantity won the battle against quality in the edit room. I was also a bit disappointed with the patched-together audio commentary made up solely of interview leftovers (more on that below). Nonetheless, this is a very fine package...
The centerpiece is the nearly hour's worth of production featurettes. It's a great line-up: in addition to Scorsese, we get the main tech team, including director photography Robert Richardson, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, production designer Dante Ferrenti and writer Nicholas Pileggi, as well as the top-flight cast (among them Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone and the usually press-shy Robert De Niro, who is no doubt here only 'cause it is Scorsese).
"'Casino': The Story" (8 min.) traces Scorsese's late-breaking interest in the material. He "owed" Universal one more movie after 'Cape Fear' and 'Age of Innocence,' and only jumped into 'Casino' after deciding at the last minute to pass on directing 'Clockers,' handing that project over to Spike Lee. "The Cast and Characters" (22 min.) and "The Look" (17 min.) finally give us the production nitty gritty. Though I sometimes find De Niro a bit dry and self-important (dude, lighten up) it is hard not to hang on his every word just because, well, he's De Niro. And say what you want about Stone, but she knows how to give good interview; I especially love how she totally dissed Scorsese when first approached for the role, out of her own actor's insecurity. The visual featurette may be the most straight-forward of the bunch, yet also the most illuminating. Scorsese has always been known as a perfectionist, and after watching this onw, it's hard not to pity poor costume designer Rita Ryack, who had to make 80 different (and very loud) suits just for De Niro alone. Finally, "After the Filming" (9:00) gives a bit of wrap-up on the film's ultimate success (it was not a blockbuster) and its impact (Stone was the most affected career-wise and comes across as humble and grateful).
Though there are not a ton of Deleted Scenes, nothing from Scorsese is ever boring. Who can argue with Don Rickles, or Scorsese's own mother Catherine chastising her son for use of the F-word? Fabulous. As for the quality, it is fine if not great, presented here in 4:3 pillarboxed 480i video.
Now, about that audio commentary. Dubbed "Moments with Martin Scorsese, Sharon Stone and Nicholas Pileggi," it is actually just an edited, audio-only hodgepodge of excerpts from the video interviews. Which is fine -- a good deal of information that was cut out of the docs is here. But there is also plenty that is the same, so about half of the content in the commentary/featurettes is redundant. This may be seen as a plus if you pick just one or the other to sit through, but rather extraneous together. As for which is better -- though I prefer the video supplements as I'm a visual guy, you could just as easily toss a coin.
As usual with Universal HD DVD releases, no theatrical trailers are provided. And their plain jane menus continue to suck big time.
'Casino' may be my favorite Martin Scorsese "mob movie," even though the general consensus favors 'GoodFellas' and/or 'Mean Streets.' Regardless, any serious student of the filmmaker has to see this one, and the excellent performances really seal the deal. This HD DVD from Universal is also excellent. The transfer really shines, and I liked all of the extras, too. Though perhaps not an absolutely essential upgrade over the standard-def DVD release, it is still enough of a step up to rate as highly recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.