Perhaps no American director seems to have created more cinephiles than Martin Scorsese. I have never been his most ardent fan though, generally liking rather than loving most of his work. But he’s also one I feel I need to continually revisit to see if I will ever find the spark of genius that so many others find.
The plot of Casino (1995) sees Robert De Niro playing up and coming member of the mob Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein, making his way in the world of organised crime. An advanced party for the organisation’s tentative excursions into Las Vegas. He runs a casino which in turn funnels huge sums of money back to his superiors. Ace’s mission is complicated by having to keep an erratic, violence prone, ‘made’ (unlike De Niro) member of the mob Nicky Santoro (played by Joe Pesci), in some kind of check. All sound pretty familiar? That’s because Casino is painfully similar to Goodfellas (1990). So close it could be a remake. The grand sweep of the arc is the same, the ups and downs, machinations of the mob and a focus on ‘street level guys’ all reappear. The films mainly look the same and many of the same actors appear. Even specific plot beats echo loudly from one film to the other. There are some slight differences – the love triangle dynamic is well set up here involving Sharon Stone’s Ginger McKenna, and the notion of a film structured like an American epic but really only being about a casino intrigues for a little while. But the similarities certainly consume any tangible differences. In addition to these similarities, the film also loses its narrative core regularly along the way, feeling too vague. Some of the story elements, Ginger’s drug habit for example, are really muddled in the way they are conveyed, which lessens the impact of that part of the story.
Style wise, Casino does not do a whole lot out of the ordinary, and what it does is a mixed bag. The duelling voiceovers are tiresome and the cutesy stuff such as ‘back home years ago’ subtitles are ineffective. But there is a gaudiness to the colours that Scorsese employs well, helping the glitz and seediness of Las Vegas pop off the screen. Similarly the performances range from the disappointing, to the stock standard to occasionally good. Pesci is perhaps the best of them all. I don’t really care for his character, it’s basically the exact same little wired psychopath vibe we’ve seen before. But he performs it very astutely, becoming the focal point of the scenes he is in. At the other end of the scale, particularly in terms of the writing of the character, but also performance wise is Sharon Stone. The film asserts that she is “the most charming woman you ever saw”, but at no point does that come out. Stone plays Ginger as a blank slate and neither the writing or the performance gives us any clue as to why she becomes such a contested part of the story.
Verdict: In the end, I feel the same about Casino as I do about a lot of Scorsese films. It is a fine, watchable experience. But ultimately a pretty hollow one. For me, the film does not have anything to say and it is further weakened by being essentially the exact same film as Goodfellas. Stubby of Reschs
My earlier blog titled Stop Your Rambling proved relatively popular. So I thought I would make it a semi-regular feature. Three films from the 1001 list, one thousand words. Here we go.
Goodfellas (1990) – The film that sends Scorsese fanboys all around the world into fits of delirium. Don’t even get them started on the Coco Cabana tracking shot please.
Based on a true story the film charts the rise of young Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, through the ranks of the mob. Especially it focuses on his relationship with the utterly psycho Tommy, played by Joe Pesci who is very good, and Robert De Niro’s James Conway. Strangely when Henry and Tommy are meant to be young, early twenties up and comers they are played by actors who are, and look somewhere between 40-50. Usually I let these things slide in a film, but it jars for me in this. Especially because the film covers a lot of time (20-30 years) and there are really no signs of ageing, except De Niro whacking some more grey in his hair. Initially there is great camaraderie between these characters and their mob brethren. It is amazing how quickly though loyalty goes out the window though when someone ends up in jail or there is more money to be made from disloyalty. Money is king to these men, and they’ll forsake anyone to get a little more. They also enjoy killing people for very little reason and treating women (generally their wives) like utter shit. Eventually, like any golden-age gangster flick, these guys all get what’s coming to them.
This is a film clearly made by an expert, its very pretty to look at. Scorsese is extremely proficient, mixing up the straightforward shooting with point of view and tracking shots. And as far as late gangster flicks go it’s generally regarded as the pick of the pack. It’s just not a real personal favourite of mine and for me never reaches the heights of a great film. I don’t find it particularly exciting and I don’t relate to these characters at all.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
Thelma and Louise (1991) directed by Ridley Scott before he felt the need to make every film with Russel Crowe, in many ways turned the road film on its head. Geena Davis’ Thelma and Susan Sarandon’s Louise are two Arkansas ladies looking to escape the shitty men in their lives for a few days. After Louise shoots a would-be rapist they end up on the run, with Thelma dabbling in armed robbery to finance proceedings.
I am a massive fan of Geena Davis, she is an outstanding actress. And the journey of her character carries this film, ably supported by Sarandon in a less flashy role. Actually the acting in this film in general is superb. Harvey Keitel is wonderful as a caring cop as is Michael Madsen as Louise’s man, gradually managing to be less of an asshole. Their brief onscreen relationship is really nicely done. Finishing second only to Davis in the acting stakes is Christopher McDonald as her hilariously deadbeat husband. Shooter McGavin from the classic Happy Gilmore (1996) is so smarmy I lost count of the times I wanted to smack that moustache right off his face.
The fleeing of the women across the states allows Scott to pile on the gorgeous widescreen shots of the American countryside, always under impossibly blue skies. The confronting attempted rape of Thelma triggers an increasingly out of control chain of events including numerous crimes perpetrated by the two ladies. Witnessing Davis’ Thelma grow from timid housewife to an utter badass who doesn’t take shit from anyone is terrific fun. And the ending. Wow. I won’t give it away, but if you have seen in let me know what you think of it. I’m a little torn by it, but I do appreciate the fact that Scott avoids any level of tweeness in his conclusion, which is where I thought the film was heading.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
Dersu Uzala (1974) is the first Kurosawa film I’ve seen. Best known for The Seven Samurai (1954) Kurosawa is probably the most famous ‘world’ cinema director in history. Set in the early 1900s this is possibly the strangest ‘buddy’ film I’ve ever seen. It chronicles the relationship between the leader of a Russian military surveying team and an elderly woodsman. The woodsman, named Dersu and played by Maksim Mumzuk is one of the great characters of cinema. This compact man is at first mocked by the soldiers for his strange, in their eyes primitive ways. However gradually all the soldiers learn to love and respect Dersu, which sounds a bit lacklustre in theory, but the delivery is anything but. The Captain, played by Yuri Solomin who is incredible, recognises the wisdom of Dersu very early on and rightfully places a great deal of trust in his elderly colleague. These two are backed by a support cast of really interesting characters.
A number of set-pieces including Dersu saving the captain’s life by building a makeshift shelter as the night closes in and one involving a raft took my breath away. In some ways this film is reminiscent of Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) but I personally think it is superior. It is shot in a very naturalistic style which reflects the themes of civilisation vs wilderness perfectly. The film was shot over two years in Siberia, and the result is one of the most scenic films I have ever witnessed. The shots of a wilderness probably none of us will ever witness in person are a gift. The sound effects of nature are turned right up, so bird calls, wind and rustling of leaves punctuate the action.
A lot of the notes I took while watching this film were just single words – philosophical, beguiling, metaphorical. This is one of those films that cannot be adequately described by words. It has immediately become one of my absolute favourite films and I would encourage you all to check it out. But make sure you watch it with subtitles, not the infernal dubbing.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter