|Written by Bill Warren & AVRev.com|
|Saturday, 04 October 2008|
The first half of Casino is as brilliantly made as anything Scorsese has ever done. It opens in 1983, with Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert De Niro), gaudily resplendent in a pink blazer, climbing into his car only have a car bomb goes off, sending Ace tumbling through the credits and in a cloud of flame which is replaced by the lights of Las Vegas. This operatic opening sets the tone for the first third of the movie.
Ace, a masterful gambler, narrates, alternating with his long-time friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), a made man and full-time gangster. Ace and Nicky explain Las Vegas to us while the film script explains and demonstrates how the mob still ruled many of the casinos despite the Nevada laws that kept known criminals from obtaining the necessary licenses.
Nicky, Ace's boyhood friend, is sent by the real bosses, old Mafia guys back east, to "make sure nobody fucks around with (Rothstein) the golden Jew." Ace falls in love with a clever hustler named Ginger (Sharon Stone), who is herself in thrall to her former pimp (a gloriously sleazy James Woods); and almost against his better judgment, Ace marries Ginger. All three of them make the classic error of pride: each thinks they understand Las Vegas, and in the end, none of them do.
In a way, it's more like The Godfather movies than like Scorsese's previous gangster outings; those were about the mob on several levels and how it is run. The Godfather films are about Don Corleone's belief in the American dream, and how Michael misunderstood and corrupted it even further than his father had. It's hard not to see Las Vegas as a kind of embodiment of everything right and wrong about America--and that's how Ace sees it, too. It's his best chance to become rich and connected, but this shrewd gambler misunderstands the game and its rules. Just as with the mob itself, he remains an outsider in Las Vegas.
Everything behind the decline and fall of Ace, Ginger and Nicky is set up in the first half of the movie; things unwind in the second, and that's where the movie falters. Though Casino is brilliantly made in all ways, declines are rarely as interesting as rises, no matter who's in charge of telling the story. Scorsese and Pileggi seem to tell us everything three times, and our attention wanders.
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The video quality is astonishing good for the age of this film. The Blu-ray presentation utilizes the same master as the previous HD DVD release and the 2007 standard DVD release. It is encoded using VC-1. The contrast and blacks are strong, creating a vibrant and popping image. The colors are accurate with fleshtones being spot on. Details are amazing. The film is blessed with fabulous texture. My only grip would have to be that the image suffers from moments of blown out contrast, creating extremely bright whites. Also, shadow delineation suffers due to the crushing in the blacks. Overall, an extremely pleasing video presentation.
The audio quality is also of good quality. Upgraded to DTS-HD from the HD DVD's Dolby Digital Plus track, the sound has improved mid-range and upper frequencies. The bass frequencies add warmth to the pop-rock songs. Surround channels are used effectively, with accurate surround panning. For the audio buff, one of the most impressive aspects of Casino is the intricate, beautifully-chosen song score; there is, in fact, no composed score for the movie. Scorsese uses pop songs, rock, blues, and novelty numbers; he uses great songs, lousy arrangements of good songs, touches of classical, even music from other movies. On the soundtrack we hear Dean Martin, Otis Redding, Tony Bennett, the Animals, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, Jerry Vale, and DEVO, just to name a few. Most often, we hear either Louis Prima or the Rolling Stones. It's a great collection of golden oldies, but the songs were chosen for their expressiveness and connection with the scenes, sometimes ironic, sometimes comic, sometimes simple and straightforward. The soundtrack is so vivid that I suspect that you could watch Casino with the dialog track turned off, and still get an excellent idea of precisely what Scorsese wanted each scene to convey.
Furthermore, Scorsese layers the other tracks intricately as well, using location sound and Foley brilliantly to create an audio sense of texture. No, this isn't the kind of sound that will blow you through the back walls, or impress your older brother with what a loud system you have, but few American directors use sound overall as well as Scorsese does. The sounds of dice quietly tumbling over felt alternate with the snap of bones breaking and the disturbing, the wet sound of spattering blood and the dusty rumble of collapsing buildings join with the intrusive crackle of photographic flashbulbs going off.
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As is the case with most of Universal's latest titles, much of the bonus materials have been cut up and put into Blu-ray's picture-in-picture feature. This requires a Blu-ray player with firmware 1.1 or higher to play, leaving some early adopters out in the cold.
There is an audio commentary with Scorsese, Stone and Pileggi. However, this commentary is really just a hodgepodge of the interviews cut up and formatted as an audio commentary. There are two featurettes, "Vegas and the Mob" and "History Alive: True Crime Authors: 'Casino' with Nicholas Pileggi." And lastly, there are a few deleted scenes.
Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the picture-in-picture feature, which contains all the other footage present on the HD DVD and 2007 DVD releases.
Casino may have some failings, but it's a Martin Scorsese movie, with the director working at near the top of his form. And even if it is an imperfect Scorsese movie, Casino still was one of the best movies of 1995.