Casino (1995) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Martin Scorsese is generally considered to be the dean of American filmmakers, the man that the youngsters look up to. Scorsese's reputation is so redoubtable that most people are surprised to discover that he has never won an Oscar and has never had a hit. (Gangs of New York came the closest to box office success, with a $77 million gross, but that compared to a $97 million budget).

I guess that means I feel about the same way everyone else feels about this guy - his talent is evident, but if he's so freakin' good, why can't he make a movie I actually like watching?

One of the problems with Casino is that it is practically a sequel to Goodfellas. If you just couldn't get enough of Goodfellas, here it is again. Joe Pesci obviously couldn't get enough, because when his friend Scorsese called him up, he must have said "Marty, I need time to study the role. What's my character?", and Scorsese must have responded, "skip the heavy study, Li'l Joe, because you can play the EXACT same character as in Goodfellas."

When I say "exact" here, I don't mean "kinda similar". I mean that this is the exact same guy with a different name. The first time Pesci did this, it was kind of a cool idea that a little, flabby, overweight dwarf with a sissy voice turns out to be an uncontrollable psychopathic juggernaut who destroys everyone in his path. I'm not really convinced, however, that every movie needs that character. Maybe you have a different idea. If you think Amadeus would be a better movie with a chubby little Salieri who kills Mozart by squeezing his head in a vice, Casino is your movie. Personally, I'm holding out for Joe Pesci's Hamlet.

Casino is based on a famous gambler named Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, whose story was told in Nicholas Pileggi's nonfiction book, Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas. Although Pileggi also co-wrote the Casino screenplay with Scorsese, the movie is a fictionalization which does not follow the Rosenthal story precisely.

Here is the publicity blurb for the book:

"The true story of how the mob finally lost its stranglehold over the multi-billion-dollar casino gambling industry of Las Vegas.

No one knew more about casinos than Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, the gambling mastermind who, with his best friend and partner Anthony Spilotro virtually ran Las Vegas for the mob. For years it was the perfect arrangement -- Lefty provided the smarts and obsessive attention to detail, while Tony made sure the bosses stayed happy with their weekly suitcases filled with millions of dollars in skimmed cash. It was so sweet it should have lasted forever, but Lefty's obsession with running the town -- and Tony's obsession with Lefty's beautiful showgirl wife Geri -- eventually led to the betrayals and investigations that exploded into one of the greatest debacles in the mob's history.

A real-life story of love and betrayal set in America's favorite playground, Casino is a Mafia tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, as well as the inside account of just how the mob lost control of the neon money-making machine it created."

That summary does not exactly apply to the movie, but it's close enough to give you the idea. Robert DeNiro plays the mastermind with quiet, icy elegance. Joe Pesci plays his boyhood friend who becomes a noted Vegas hoodlum. Sharon Stone plays the hooker who becomes DeNiro's wife, then Pesci's lover. The efficient DeNiro character, Ace, has everything under control on the casino side, but everything goes wrong in his personal life, and that eventually undermines his casino operation, which needs to stay low-key in order to be effective. Ace refuses to cut ties with his out-of-control pal, then he is betrayed by his chronically unfaithful and coke-addicted wife, then he hosts a local TV show which draws further attention to himself.

Ideally, the mob bosses want Ace to operate quietly and discreetly in the shadows, and to give the impression that he's a faceless bureaucratic executive in the IBM or Disney mold, maintaining an aura of legitimacy which allows the mobs to quietly skim and launder money through the casinos. When Ace's life gets too flamboyant, the mob boys realize that Ace and his associates are exposing the operation to unwanted scrutiny, and ...

Well, don't make them angry. You wouldn't like them when they're angry. You wouldn't even like them that much when they're in a good mood.

It is often misreported that the movie is based on Pileggi's book. That is almost true, but not quite. The book was still a work in progress when Scorsese and Pileggi created the screenplay. Technically, the screenplay was actually written before the book, not after, but it was based on the book-in-progress.

Although the film is fictionalized, if you believe what the film tells you, you can assume that you won't receive much misleading information. In fact, the film plays out like a documentary at times, when it presents endless sidebars about the details of money laundering, casino scamming, gaming, cheating, protection rackets, greasing the local politicians, and more. The film must include more voice-over than any other major fictional film in history. It runs just about three hours, and there must be pretty close to ninety minutes of narration.

My thoughts: a good movie, but not great. Too long, too much narration, too familiar, and too much detail about penny-ante aspects of bookmaking, casino operation, and Nevada politics.


Playing a hooker, Millicent Sheridan shows her buns and breasts, although she is not completely in focus.

Sharon Stone is seen being dragged through the hall by DeNiro. She is kicking and struggling in her underpants.

Oh, well. If you're into the whole Scorsese, Goodfellas thing, this is a must-see for you. Excluding documentaries, Casino is rated fourth highest of all Scorsese's films at IMDb (see a list of the top dozen below), and the three above it are considered to be unchallenged masterpieces, so the general verdict of posterity seems to be "Casino is a near masterpiece".

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen, 2.35.

  • no meaningful features

Book info from Amazon

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 3.5/4

The People Vote ...

  • Budget: $52 million. Gross: $42 million.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. A must-see for Scorsese fans. If you liked Goodfellas, this movie is very, very similar in many ways, sharing the same scriptwriters and an identical portrayal from Joe Pesci.

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