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Casino(1995)

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teaser Casino (1995)

The joke at the time of its release was, "I liked Casino (1995) better under its original title, Goodfellas (1990)." The joke was an easy one, the two Martin Scorsese films being so thematically and structurally similar. But it was also a lazy critique of a complex film that has grown in stature since its release. Both Casino and Goodfellas tell the story of an outsider brought into the mob, told in flashback, with the lead character narrating. Casino ups the ante by having multiple narrators interspersed, a gamble that didn't quite pay off (apologies for the impossible to resist casino clichs). Still, the story is as engaging, perhaps more so than Goodfellas, and the acting is as good as anyone would expect from a Scorsese movie, which is to say, it is superb.

The story follows the real life exploits of Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert De Niro) who ran a mob-owned casino in Las Vegas, doubling its profits before running afoul of the gambling commission that eventually saw him sitting in a car while a bomb blew it up. In fact, that's how the film starts, with Sam being blown up in his car and yet narrating from the perspective of the future. It's a hell of a way to immediately engage the viewer and the movie doesn't stop to catch its breath for the next three hours. That may seem like a long running time for most movies, but in the hands of director Scorsese and legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Casino speeds by in no time at all.

Martin Scorsese began working with Thelma Schoonmaker right at the start of his career. His first feature film, a student film entitled Who's That Knocking at My Door was edited by Schoonmaker in 1967 after the two met at New York University's film school. They would also work together on the documentary Woodstock two years later and then not again for over a decade. The reason? Schoonmaker wasn't a part of the editor's guild and thus did no narrative film editing until 1979. At that point, Scorsese had her edit Raging Bull (1980) for which she promptly won her first Oscar. As of this writing she has won three Oscars for editing, all for Scorsese movies. In fact, except for a handful of titles, almost every movie she has ever edited has been a Scorsese movie, and likewise, with only his seventies movies out of the running, almost every movie Scorsese has ever made has been edited by Schoonmaker. That makes the two of them one of the longest running and greatest creative teams in movie history.

The team of Scorsese and Schoonmaker was complemented by Robert De Niro, who had worked with Scorsese multiple times and until Leonard DiCaprio came along, was Scorsese's leading man of choice. As a result, the three of them, director, editor, and star, developed a cadence that can be seen throughout their films. There is a familiarity to the films that comes from knowing the preceding work but also an element of surprise, as each new production used that familiarity to turn expectations around. The opening alone plays on the familiarity of Schoonmaker's edit of the car trunk scene in Goodfellas that thrusts the film into action, only this time, the main character himself is being blown up.

The cast also includes Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, and the always wonderful assortment of comedians and character actors that Scorsese brings into the fold of gritty crime drama. There's Dick Smothers, Alan King, and Don Rickles. There's L.Q. Jones and James Woods. And there's Frank Vincent, the man that Joe Pesci beats nearly to death in Raging Bull and stabs to death in Goodfellas. In Casino, Vincent got his revenge. He was thrilled, he said, to finally get to kill Pesci's character for once.

Casino did only moderately well in its initial release with both critics and audiences but has become increasingly more popular with both in the intervening years. Perhaps five years was too soon to come on the heels of Goodfellas but now, decades after its release, Casino stands as a movie on its own, and one of the best of the nineties at that.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Producer: Barbara De Fina, Joseph P. Reidy
Written by: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker
Art Director: Jack G. Taylor, Jr.
Music Editor: Bobby Mackston
Costume Design: John Dunn, Rita Ryack
Cinematographer: Robert Richardson
Cast: Robert De Niro (Sam 'Ace' Rothstein), Sharon Stone (Ginger McKenna), Joe Pesci (Nicky Santoro), James Woods (Lester Diamond), Don Rickles (Billy Sherbert), Alan King (Andy Stone), Kevin Pollak (Phillip Green), L.Q. Jones (Pat Webb), Dick Smothers (Senator), Frank Vincent (Frank Marino).

by Greg Ferrara

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