Monday, December 12, 2011

Vegas Movies: Casino

Martin Scorsese's Casino is, without a doubt, the gold standard for Las Vegas movies.

Scorsese reassembled much of his Goodfellas team, including writer Nicholas Pileggi and actors Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, to tell a sprawling tale of the days when the mob ran Las Vegas.

I can review Casino from a film fanatic's perspective, talking about Scorsese's bravura camera-work, the excellent performances, the brilliant use of multiple narrators, the electrifying and high paced storytelling, the eclectic soundtrack, the shocking use of violence, or so many more things. But this, again, is a Vegas-related blog and I'm going to look at the film as a piece of work about the city. And as a Vegas movie, Casino completely nails it in every way imaginable.

Casino, like many Scorsese movies set in New York, turns the city its set in into a main character. That said, the movie takes place in a Las Vegas that doesn't exist anymore, a wild-west city run by the mafia. Today, Sin City is owned by massive corporations and all of the "bad behavior" one indulges in on a weekend getaway there is much safe, controlled and planned.

But Scorsese's Las Vegas is truly a dangerous place, a city run by gangsters who commit murder in order to protect their money. Scorsese dazzlingly shows us how the mob skimmed money off of the top of the casino's profits while violently ensuring that the customers weren't cheating them out of money on the gaming floor. Scorsese's endlessly moving, gliding, dipping, and dodging camera explores every corner of the bustling casino, fluidly moving from the gamblers on the floor to the backrooms where the money is counted, to the security rooms where experts keep their eyes on potential cheaters to the board room where the casino bosses operate in extraordinary sequences that capture the humming energy of Las Vegas better than any movie I can think of.

Casino also does a bangup job of showing life behind the scenes in Sin City, as DeNiro's Sam "Ace" Rothstein falls in love with a troubled yet beautiful hustler played by Sharon Stone, who proceeds to make his life miserable with her fast-living use of drugs and hard-alcohol. The film also depicts Vegas as a weird place for second-rate entertainers who never made it and has-been icons who are well past their prime, as DeNiro's Rothstein ends up hosting a hilariously cheesy talk show.

But the most fascinating part of the film is the way it depicts how Vegas evolved from a truly corrupt, dangerous, and seedy gangster's paradise into a slick corporate city, a Disneyland for adults (where you may believe you're engaging in truly unruly behavior but you're just as much on a safe and planned out track as guests riding Pirates of the Caribbean). Maybe it's a better place to take the kids for a weekend (whereas Scorsese's Las Vegas was no place to imagine taking your family), but some unique character has been a lost as the city has evolved from a scuzzy gambling town in the middle of the desert to a slick city made up of corporate palaces built to resemble landmarks from all over the world. Marty Scorsese is too smart a filmmaker to glorify the mob; he's seen too many lives ruined by organized crime to actually romanticize it without showing the awful side of a life of crime. But there is a bit of sadness in the final sequence as DeNiro narrates what's become of Sin City today in a brilliantly edited montage that was put together in 1995 but feels more relevant today than ever.

Scorsese is one of the most celebrated New York directors of all time, and he uses all of his formidable skills in depicting the beating heart of a city to tell the epic Las Vegas tale to end them all.

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