After the blockbuster box office and critical acclaim lavished on him for 1991's Goodfellas, director Martin Scorsese would once again team up with writer Nicholas Pileggi and actors Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for a second look at a real life gangster story with the ambitious and epic Casino in 1995. While the two films have some similarities in terms of look and in terms of performers, and they're both based in the world of the Mafia, they are two very different films - both great, stand out works from one of America's greatest living directors.
The story of the film focuses on two mobsters from Chicago, Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) and Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) who head on out to the desert town of Las Vegas, Nevada (circa 1973) where they intend to make something of themselves. Ace gets set up fairly quickly as the operator of the Tangiers Casino while his childhood friend Nicky acts as his enforcer, taking care of the dirtier side of the Vegas mob lifestyle.
Ace and his buddies are taking their fair share of the profits right off the top of it all in the city of sin, and things spiral upwards at an amazing rate for them. Before long, he and his main squeeze, a local hottie named Ginger (Sharon Stone) have got more money than they know what to do with. Ace and Ginger are living the life and really getting it on, and it looks like everything is going to be coming up roses for the two of them for some time to come, until Nicky's erratic behavior starts to become a problem and Ginger's past starts to come back to haunt her.
Casino is a great a film. While many would argue it's overly long or a little too drawn out, revisiting the film really proves that it is in fact an engrossing and dramatic character piece that shows just how quickly the mighty can fall. The characters in this film had everything going for them. Everything. And when it all comes tumbling down so fast it's literally like an earthquake and we know very early on through some clever foreshadowing their lives will never be the same again.
Socrsese's film captures the grandeur, the romance, the glitz and the glory that only Las Vegas can offer and it does so in such a beautiful and effective manner that the city itself is as much a character in the film as any of the actors are. But what a cast of actors the city is going up against. De Niro is suave and cool as Ace Rothstein, complimented perfectly by the unpredictability of Pesci's Nicky Santoro. While we've seen these two in more than a couple of movies together, in Casino they're given such great material to work with, such a magnificently constructed and complex script to bounce off of, that they give a pair of truly amazing performances. While De Niro's output in the last five years or so has gone noticeably down hill to the point of self parody and Pesci has seemingly disappeared from the big screen all together, Casino serves as a testament to just how good these two powerhouses were together. Couple that with the best performance that Sharon Stone has ever delivered and some great supporting roles from James Woods, Don Rickles, Kevin Pollack, Alan King and even Dick Smothers of all people and you've got yourself the perfect cast for a film of this type.
Scorsese's direction is as tight as it has ever been in this film with his trademark eye for detail present in every frame of the movie. The early seventies are recreated perfectly from the cars to the clothes to the architecture to the slang that the characters speak in the film, right down to the cocktails they sip and the cigarettes that they smoke. Yeah, some of the names were changed and a few of the details of the true life events were altered a little bit, but there's nothing in this film that is outside of the realm of possibility and the movie is all the better for it. While the settings and the location shooting is all very much 'larger than life' the people who inhabit them are most definitely human, and as flawed as they come.
The look and feel of the film is, quite simply, perfect. The camera makes excellent use of the widescreen framing to really bring the city to life and the interior shots within the casino itself range from intensely claustrophobic to wide open and expansive as the story line changes during the duration of the film. Colors and shadow are used masterfully as is the lighting and the film looks beautiful from start to finish. It's polished, it's glitzy, it's glamorous and it's slick, just like the city it is capturing. While the seamless blending of period music that Goodfellas handled so expertly isn't quite as perfect in Casino, it is damn close and the soundtrack again makes excellent use of some familiar songs of the era to add to the realism of atmosphere.
Scorsese makes his three-hour epic work by ensuring that we give a damn about the characters that he's dealing with. The aforementioned level of humanity enables us to sympathize with characters that the average man or woman would likely have nothing in common with. This being an important factor in the success of the film, part of the credit for that has to go to Nicholas Pileggi's source material and the depth to which he brings the players into the story. By the time that the movie is finished, we feel as if we know the people involved in it and when the inevitable happens, we feel it as they feel it. Emotions run high, dreams are built up and knocked down, and pride and greed - the eternal downfalls of man - once again ruin the day.The DVD
Casino is presented in a 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that retains the film's original theatrical aspect ratio. Seeing as the first side of the disc contains only the film, the 'commentar' and a basic setup menu, the bit rate stays reasonably high on this presentation even though the disc has almost three hours worth of film packed in there.
The first thing you'll notice on this release is the colors. The first Universal release looked a bit washed out and that problem has been very nicely corrected on this transfer which does an exceptionally good job of reproducing the vibrant color palette that the film makes use of. The reds look bright and distinct and don't bleed out, while the black levels are properly balanced and are very deep, looking much better and cleaner than the earlier DVD did.
There are more than a few moments in the film where the colors will look off on purpose and those scenes are pretty much intact on this DVD as well. The exception, and it's a minor one, are a couple of scenes where the high contrast that was in the film looks to have been dulled down a little bit. Robert Richardson's look for the film required that some scenes in the movie were to look noticeably over exposed to represent the 'heat' that some of the characters might be feeling. While some of that hotness is still there, some of it has been glossed up a just a little bit and while it hardly takes you out of the film, those who have seen the movie before might find it a little odd that these moments in the film, sometimes important moments at that, are a slight bit different in terms of visual temperature than they might remember.
That one issue aside, Casino does look great on this disc. The image is cleaner and sharper looking ,there's more detail present in the picture, and the colors, as stated, look much more accurate and much more realistic on this sharper and much improved transfer. There's a little bit of grain and a tiny bit of print damage in the form of a speck or two, but really, if you're not looking for them you're not going to notice them.Sound:
You've got your choice of watching the film in either its native English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix or in optional French or Spanish dubbed Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mixes. Subtitles are provided in French and Spanish and there is an English language closed captioning feature as well.
Like the video on this release, the audio on this edition is also improved from the first DVD. While there's still no DTS mix included here, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix does an excellent job of bringing the audible portion of the film to life. The background music and soundtrack used in the film swell up in the rear channels when needed to bring a wonderful sense of depth to the film while background noise and sound effects fill in the soundstage during the crowd scenes and let the front portion of the set up handle the quieter moments. Dialogue is clean and clear and everything is easy to understand at all times. The mix is balanced properly and there aren't any problems with the score of effects drowning out the characters in the movie.Extras:
Universal's first release of the film was a real let down in the extra features department, so it's nice to see them making good with this re-release by heaping on the supplemental goodies. Here's what you'll find to explore when you're done watching the film itself:
On the first side of the disc we find the following:
Moments With Martin Scorsese, Sharon Stone, Nicholas Pileggi, And More!: This is structured in a similar way to a commentary track in that it's an audio option that allows you to listen to the thoughts of those involved in the making of the film overtop of the movie itself - it is not screen specific at all. Scorsese starts things off by stating that a newspaper article inspired the idea, and then it jumps over to the editor who talks about how the opening scene was set up. Scorsese details some of the pre-production history and how the Animals' House Of The Rising Sun played an important part in the movie as well as some of the other songs used in the film – if you listen carefully, you'll notice that certain sound bites of the director are eerily familiar to some of the sound bites used in the documentaries found on the flipside of this DVD. Because of this, a lot of the information is covered twice. Nicholas Pileggi also talks overtop of the film and he details how he had to work overtime to get the book out on the stands before the film hit even though they were essentially written at the same time. The publisher wanted the book to hit store shelves a good year before the film hit theaters so that people wouldn't go see the movie and then not buy the book.
Sharon Stone talks about how intense it is to work with Joe Pesci and who when you're in a scene with him, you're in that scene to stay alive and how real he is as an actor and as a person. She states that Pesci has an intensity that is unmatched and how he literally becomes the character he's playing in the film. Scorsese talks about the importance of the color composition and the widescreen cinematography and again, these comments are the same as those from the documentary and we're hearing some (not all, but some) of the same material repeated. Stone seems to have really enjoyed working with De Niro and Pesci as they were, as she puts it, fearless, because they didn't have a problem with anyone on the set giving their all. They all were consummate professionals and how they brought a sense of vitality to the screen and seemed to thrive off the unpredictability that she brought to her character in the film. She claims that working with James Woods was like playing fastball and that once she was done working on Casino she really had no idea where to steer her career afterwards as she was kind of struggling with how to do anything as good as that movie again, which is why she took a hiatus from acting.
Frank Vincent talks about how good Stone was in the movie and how Scorsese is always able to coax the best performances out of anyone he works with. He discusses how Stone did so well despite the fact that she was really the only big female role in the film and how she should have won the Oscar for her performance. Thelma Schoonmaker talks about the humanity that embodies Martin Scorsese's films and how Casino contains so many of those human elements that really make his characters easier to relate to despite their occupations and their dark sides.
While this does make for an interesting listen, the repetition of some of the information (not only from Scorsese but also from Stone and Pileggi) from the documentaries is a little disheartening. Regardless of which order you check out the extra features in, you're going to notice the duplication of some of it and when that happens, you're just not as interested as might expect to be. This 'moments' commentary is definitely worth listening to, but I can't help but feel that this presentation would have been better served by either a cast commentary including De Niro and Pesci or a specific director's commentary with Scorsese.
The rest of the extra features are on side two of the DVD:
Deleted Scenes: The first deleted scene involves De Niro and his mother counting some money in the grocery store. We get three takes of this, and combined they run about a minute in length. The second scene feature Pesci at the bar with two pals, he tells a story about a man who shot himself in the arm, and about how someone was squirming when they got shot. This scene is about thirty seconds in length. The fourth scene runs roughly a minute in length and it features Pesci sitting at a bar with another mobster having a heart to heart. The last scene has De Niro calling Don Rickles on the phone telling him to get over to his house, and it runs about thirty seconds.
Nothing particularly important happens in these scenes, a few of them are simply blooper outtakes and flubs, but it's nice to see them included in the package anyway. The audio quality is quite bad on them and the dialogue is muffled and flat sounding, and the video quality does leave a little to be desired. Be prepared to turn the volume up on your receiver to compensate for that.
Casino – The Story: What this is, in essence, is a documentary detailing the background of the film, where the ideas came from, where the inspiration came from, and how the story came to be. A video clip of Nicholas Pileggi talking about his inspiration for writing Casino and why starts things off. He notes that all the details of it were laid out in court that made for great source material. Scorsese talks about how he owed Universal a film and how he was won over by Pileggi's pitch. Producer Barbara De Fine talks about how Scorsese likes to make 'movies about the neighborhood.' Pileggi talks about how some of the people involved in the real life events that the film portrays weren't the most cooperative of people but how a few of them came around once publicity started flying around about the movie and how De Niro was going to be in it. At just over eight minutes long it doesn't overstay its welcome and this little segment does a nice job, through video clips from the cast and crew, backstage footage, still shots and voice over interviews, of laying out how it all came to happen.
Casino – The Cast And Characters: The second documentary is structured in much the same way as the first one and it runs exactly one second shy of twenty minutes in length. Scorsese starts things off talking about what kind of statement he wanted to make with Casino and how he had a relaxed way of working with De Niro and how, in turn, Sharon Stone was brought into things afterwards. Joe Pesci talks about how he was cast and how he enjoys working with Scorsese because he enjoys taking directions from him.
De Niro makes the point that he thinks, from an actor's stand point, that it's always interesting to meet the real person that you're playing and he talks about his meeting with the real life Sam Rothstein, Mr. Frank Rosenthal. Sharon Stone discusses how the first time she auditioned for the role, Scorsese didn't show up and how the second time she showed up, he was stuck on a train that had broken down and also wasn't able to make. By this point, she was pretty disillusioned by it until she ran into Scorsese at a restaurant and he finally convinced her to try out for the role after talking to her about her career for an hour or so. Stone compares her turn in Casino to how she was stereotyped as the 'deadly sexy' type after Basic Instinct and how Casino allowed her to do more than she had been able to in the past and how Scorsese gave her permission to really 'go for it' with her character which leads to an interesting discussion about how her character's boobs change later in the movie.
Pesci examines the good parts and the bad parts of his character in Casino and Barbara De Fine talks about the humor that some of the characters were able to bring into the movie despite some of the dark content. They also mention how one of the actual mobsters that the story was based on, Frank Cullotta, was brought onboard as a technical advisor and Barbara De Fine talks about the unorthodox and against type casting of Don Rickles and Alan King.
Though a fair bit of this piece is talking head footage, again the clips from the film and the stills and behind the scenes footage do spice things up on a visual level and the content is quite interesting. The actors interview do lend some insight into their performances and why things were handled the way that they were, and it's always fun to hear their take on things.
Casino – The Look: The third documentary, clocking in at sixteen and a half minutes, focuses on the visuals that the film made such excellent use of. De Fine talks about how important the look of the film was because it was a period piece set in the seventies. Scorsese talks about some of the difficulty of location shooting and editor Thelma Schoonmaker talks about how Scorsese wanted to focus on the glamorous aspects of the city, which was aided in part by production designer Dante Ferretti who discusses how he researched the Las Vegas of the era by going to the local library and looking through books and magazines.
The entire goal of the film was to give it a larger than life look some great clips of behind the scenes footage shows us how that was achieved on location shoots and how they eventually convinced the Riviera to allow them to film the movie in their casino. Scorsese details some of the problems they encountered, and how crowds would show up during inopportune times to see the film being made. Rita Rack, the costume designer for the production, discusses how they transformed De Niro into Rothstein and Scorsese notes that the real life Rothstein (Frank Rosenthal), who cooperated completely with the cast and crew, had a much more dramatic wardrobe than even the one that was designed for De Niro in the film.
They also discuss Robert Richardson's cinematography and how the hot spots that he'd light off of people's shoulders and hair was so difficult to achieve while shooting in an actual casino. Ryack discusses how Richardson was extremely accommodating to working with her costumes and how Scorsese was extremely specific about the look he wanted for the film and how everyone worked together to make that happen.
Casino – After The Filming:In this segment, which runs a little over nine minutes, Pileggi talks about how when he and Scorsese were writing together, it was like they were family and how when shooting started, the performers became the family and then in post production how the editing team became the family. His point? That Scorsese was the one who carried the project to completion. The focus on this fourth documentary narrows in on the editing that happened to give the film that vibe that Scorsese was after. Schoonmaker talks about how the cinematography and camera work was handled so well during production that getting the look down that the director wanted in post production was easier than she thought it was going to be - Scorsese had everything planned out and it all came together. Barbara De Fine talks about how the length of the film was a concern from a financial perspective because the exhibitors are less inclined to show it as they can't get as many showings in on the same night as they could with a ninety minute picture.
Scorsese also talks about the musical score that was composed for the film and the soundtrack that was compiled for the film that entailed everything from classical and operatic numbers to rock and roll songs from the era in which the movie was based. They also talk about how the credits were designed for the film and the specific look that was created for the opening of the film. Pileggi gives his thoughts on how it was a mind blowing experience to witness a rough cut of the film for the first time and how it was amazing to him how all of the elements of the film based on his writing came together under Scorsese's guidance.
Vegas And The Mob: Narrated by an NBC news anchor, this documentary explores the history of organized crime with the creation of Las Vegas. We witness, through archival footage and documentary clips, the way that Las Vegas is constantly changing and evolving. From here, we're told how Vegas cannot hide the way it was birthed – through the mob and the vision of a couple of important members of organized crime.
This documentary details the exploits of Bugsy Siegel and how he played a role in the re-imagining of the city from an old desert prospecting town into the American version of Monte Carlo. It all started with Bugsy's construction of the Flamingo and how it didn't make it profit fast enough to save him from an execution, mob style. A few more brutal mob killings are discussed, how they always happened outside of the city itself out in the desert because the mob tried to legitimize itself within the context of legalized gambling.
Various interviews with lawyers, city officials, and law enforcement officials are spliced in with plenty of great archival clips from the fifties and sixties to piece together the sordid history of the city of sin, and this documentary, which runs about thirteen and a half minutes, makes for an excellent companion piece to the feature itself as it fills in a lot of the holes that Rothstein's story doesn't detail about the history of the city itself.
History Alive: True Crime Authors – Casino With Nicholas Pileggi: Courtesy of The History Channel and A&E Entertainment, this is a documentary that is made up some interviews, reenactments of actual events, and archival footage and photographs that explains the true crime side of the mob's involvement with Las Vegas. Nicholas Pileggi is the main focus of the piece and it explains collaborations with Henry Hill, which spawned Goodfellas and how the success of that project lead to his work on Casino. His relationship with Scorsese is explained, and some interesting details about Pileggi's contact with a few real life mobsters came to happen mainly because of the involvement of Robert De Niro in the project.
Clocking in at roughly forty three and a half minutes in length, the best part about this documentary is seeing all of the historical footage and photographs from the real life events that inspired Pileggi's book and in turn, Scorsese's film. Many of the details in this piece are covered elsewhere in the extra features but this time out we get to see the reality of it all through the extensive use of the archival material which pieces it all together.
Production Notes: There are twenty seven screens worth of production notes in the extra features section as well that detail Scorsese's vision for the film, how it compares to other movies in his filmography, and why he worked with some of the actors cast in the role.
Unfortunately, there's no legitimate director's commentary from Scorsese himself on this set, which is a real shame as it would have been the icing on the cake for this package. Also conspicuously absent is the film's original theatrical trailer – why this wasn't included is anyone's guess as it would seem like an obvious choice to put it on the DVD, but it's missing.. There are also previews for the special edition DVD of The Big Lebowski, the remake of Assault On Precinct 13, and the first three seasons of Northern Exposure that play before the feature on side one, but the disc does allow you to bypass them by hitting the menu button on the remote control. An insert inside the keepcase contains advertisements for a few other unrelated Universal DVD releases.Final Thoughts:
While the absence of a Scorsese commentary track can't be overlooked, Universal's new Casino – 10th Anniversary DVD release is a vast improvement over the first domestic release. While the video quality isn't quite perfect, it's damn close and the audio is as well. The extras are interesting and plentiful, and the film holds up amazingly well and stands as one of the director's crowning achievements. Highly Recommended!