Casino (1995)


Bright lights, sin city.

Bright lights, sin city.

(1995) Drama (Universal) Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, James Woods, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak, L.Q. Jones, Dick Smothers, Pat Vincent, John Bloom, Pasquale Cajano, Melissa Prophet, Bill Allison, Vinny Vella, Phillip Suriano, Erika von Tagen, Joseph Rigano, Gene Ruffini, Dominick Grieco, Millicent Sheridan. Directed by Martin Scorsese

There’s no doubt that director Martin Scorsese is an American treasure. When all is said and done he will go down as one of the great directors of all time – up there with Truffault, Hitchcock, Sturges, Ford, Capra, Kurosawa and Ray. One of the elite.

Casino is one of his masterpieces. Some of his fans believe it is his best, although when you put it up next to Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and The Departed that’s a tough claim to make, but there is certainly some argument to be made for it. In my own case, I tend to have a soft spot in my heart for it, particularly since Da Queen and I visit Las Vegas so often, there’s a particular fascination not just for the setting but the era as well.

Based on the lives of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, Geri McGee and Anthony Spilotro, the movie takes place in the waning days of the mob in Vegas. Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro) is an expert gambler who has made himself useful to the mob as a sports handicapper, one of the best in the business. He is sent to Vegas by the Teamsters-fronted Outfit to run the Tangiers, and soon doubles their earnings, which delights the bosses back in Chicago.

What is most important to the bosses is the skim, the amount of cash that is taken off the top of the casino’s earnings and sent directly to mob accountants to be hidden, while never appearing in the casino’s balance sheet and thus never getting taxed. As long as the skim is healthy, the bosses are happy and as long as the bosses are happy, Sam’s life expectancy stays reasonable.

His boyhood friend Nicky Santoro (Pesci) is sent to Vegas to be the enforcer, but his brutality and high-strung temperament eventually get him banned from every important casino in Vegas, so he has to resort to burglary to supplement his income. The mob bosses aren’t happy with Nicky but they more or less keep him around.

While this is going on, Sam falls in love with Ginger McKenna (Stone), an ex-prostitute whose boyfriend, Lester Diamond (Woods) was once her pimp and is now a cheap hustler. Sam convinces her to marry him although she is still plainly in love with Diamond, and she does, eventually giving birth to his daughter.

Things start to spiral downward for Sam and his friends as Ginger’s drug abuse, binge spending and affairs with Diamond – and with Nicky – threaten the lives of all three of them. Sam tries to distance himself but if the mob bosses go down, you know they’re going to make sure that no loose ends exist who can put them away.

Although many, including myself, consider the first two Godfather films to be the best movies on organized crime in history, I think it’s fair to say that Scorsese is the best director of movies on organized crime ever. He’s clearly fascinated by the psychology of the good fella, but also as shown here of that of the gambler.

This was the eighth and to date last collaboration between De Niro and Scorsese and they go out with a bang. De Niro is never better than he is here, playing the clever, street smart and somewhat mercurial casino manager. He knows he’s walking a dangerously fine line and knows just how to do it and keep everybody happy, but what he can’t do is control what the people around him are doing and that gets him into hot water. De Niro makes Sam kind of a tragic hero, one undone by the actions of his wife and best friend. It’s almost Shakespearean in many ways.

De Niro is aided by a fine supporting cast, including Stone in her signature role, one that would get her nominated for an Oscar. Her Ginger is high strung, weak, and plainly the kind of woman who can’t say no to anyone if it means she gets what she wants, but at the same time isn’t smart or patient enough to wait for what she wants to come to her. She’s not really a tragic figure – she’s weak, she’s addicted and she can’t escape who she is as much as she wants to. It is amazing Sam fell in love with her but then again, she’s a beautiful woman as Geri McGee was in real life.

Pesci is at his Pesci best here. While he’ll likely be remembered for his character Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, this will also be part of his legacy, the ruthless and far more sadistic Nicky Santoro who puts an unfortunate’s head into a vise in order to get him to talk (the real life Spilotro actually did just that and in the end his victim talked). Santoro is like a bull in a china shop, a loose cannon likely to go off anywhere and at anytime. His affair with Ginger would be the beginning of the end of the mob in Vegas.

While we see the lights and the glamour of Vegas, we also see the seedier side, the darker side and the side they don’t talk much about in the Chamber of Commerce. The events in Casino are well-documented and were part of Vegas lore; Rosenthal’s fall would lead to the decline of the mob’s influence in Sin City. Vegas in fact changed dramatically in the 30 years since the events here took place, going from the smaller casinos to the multi-billion dollar megaresorts that dominate the Strip today. Even so, there are old-timers who look back to that era with some affection.

What makes Scorsese’s Casino so special isn’t so much that it is based on a true story, or even that the acting performances are so exemplary; it isn’t even the terrific look of the film that cinematographer Robert Richardson assembled (although he didn’t agree; he hated the look of the movie so much that he wouldn’t use the cameras that he used here again for more than 20 years) that captures both the neon glory of downtown Law Vegas and the nascent Strip, but also the back rooms, the gaudy mansions, the seedy and the sensational.

While the third act drags a little for me in watching the final, painful fall of Sam, I can’t help but admire the movie overall as a masterpiece, one of several to Scorsese’s credit. And while Raging Bull was a more intense experience, Taxi Driver the better film from a filmmaking aspect and Goodfellas probably more enjoyable overall, Casino remains more of a sentimental favorite for me. It depicts an era, a mentality and a tragedy that reminds me of Shakespeare and yet is distinctly American. This is a classic that should be on every movie buff’s must-see list.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Scorsese’s best (and that’s saying something). Awesome look at the dark side of Las Vegas. Great performances from De Niro, Pesci and Stone. Gorgeous cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ending could have taken less time to gestate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, some of it brutal; there is also foul language pretty much throughout the film. There are also depictions of drug use and sexuality as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The casino scenes were shot at the Riviera (which recently closed and is scheduled to be imploded in the summer of 2015), while the exterior of the hotel was shot at the Landmark (which was imploded shortly after the movie was shot). However, the events of the film took place at the Stardust which closed in 2006 and was demolished in 2007, as well as at three other casinos which are also gone (but primarily at the Stardust).
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a history of Las Vegas as well as a profile on writer Nicholas Pileggi.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $116.1M on a $50M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Woman Power Returns!

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Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound


Cowboy elegance.

Cowboy elegance.

(2014) Music Documentary (Old City) Billy Mize, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dave Alvin, Ray Price, Buddy Neal, Maxine Crofford, Buddy Mize, Rose Vegas Waters, Gerald Haslam, Tommy Hays, Red Simpson, Cliff Crofford, Martha Mize, Karen Mize, Jimmy Phillips, Scott B. Bomar, Ray Urquhart, Bobby Durham, Monty Byrom, Dr. Diane Kendall, Dr. Jay Rosenbek, Dr. Ricardo Gonzalez, Leslie Gonzalez-Rothi. Directed by William J. Saunders

Florida Film Festival 2015

Even for country music fans, the name of Billy Mize isn’t necessarily a familiar one. One of the progenitors of the Bakersfield Sound, which came to rival that of Nashville on the country music scene in the 50s (and continues to be a huge influence on modern country music even today), he helped launch the careers of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, both of whom made their television debuts on television shows in the Los Angeles-area that Mize hosted.

Mize had all the tools to be huge himself; good looks, a self-effacing downhome attitude, legitimate talent both in musicianship and songwriting and a silky smooth voice. However, he made a choice early on to forego touring and concentrate on television as a means of promotion in order to stay close to his family. It’s not easy to say whether Mize was aware of the cost of that decision, but certainly it did contribute to him not achieving the status he should have had.

His life wasn’t one of glamour and prestige although he lived comfortably enough; it was one that had a great deal of heartache. He performed until he was 59 years old, when a massive stroke robbed him of his voice. I can’t imagine a hell any more terrible for a singer than to be without a voice.

Yet he still manages today, performing on guitar at local clubs in the Bakersfield area where he continues to live. His ex-wife Martha remains a loyal friend, sitting next to him during interviews for this film in which he speaks haltingly but displays a great deal of humor.

Most of the film revolves around an impending tribute concert at Buck Owen’s theater in Bakersfield on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He had been continuing speech therapy in an effort to sing again and was hoping to sing for the first time onstage in more than 20 years at the concert as a kind of birthday present to himself, his fans and his colleagues.

It should be said that the music here is mostly Mize although we do get some performances of other artists performing Mize’s songs. This kind of country music may not be your cup of tea – it isn’t mine – but I found myself appreciating it more than I expected. Part of the attraction, I think, is knowing that this is some of the finest music of the Bakersfield variety that has ever been performed.

Buck Owens is, for many, the mainstay of the Bakersfield scene and he certainly brought the sound into the mainstream, but he isn’t as well-regarded within the community as either Mize or Merle Haggard. I found that interesting to say the least. It should also be said that there are plenty of performers outside of Bakersfield who appreciate and are influenced by Mize .

Mize is regarded with affection by many in the country music community, particularly those who are based on the West Coast. As an influence, the man looms large in Bakersfield and beyond. As they illustrate in the movie, the Bakersfield sound originated in honky-tonks more than in recording studios and the music was built for people to dance. While the movie relies a bit overly much on standard documentary format and too much on talking head interviews, it certainly will motivate even those (like myself) who aren’t particular fans of country music to get up and dance for a man whose story deserves celebration.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story about a performer many have forgotten. Surprisingly relevant music.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies too much on talking heads. Those who hate country music will likely not find a reason to watch this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Saunders is actually the grandson of Billy Mize.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Muscle Shoals
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mad Max: Fury Road

The Trip to Italy


Behind Brydon and Coogan, things get a little less clear.

Behind Brydon and Coogan, things get a little less clear.

(2014) Comedy (IFC) Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Marta Barrio, Rosie Fellner, Timothy Leach, Ronni Ancona, Rebecca Johnson, Alba Foncuberta, Flora Villani. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Florida Film Festival 2014

Some may remember the 2010 British road trip comedy The Trip with British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing fictionalized versions of themselves going to the North of England to review fine dining restaurants for a newspaper. The two comedians got to riff with one another and trade impressions, check out locations made famous by poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and take stock of their careers and lives. The movie did surprisingly well in the States, amassing a cult following and becoming a popular rental on Netflix.

Now it’s time for the sequel and as we all know the sequel is supposed to be bigger, better and more of the same things that made the first film successful. This particular sequel adheres to that formula and does it well enough to make that rarest of the rare – a sequel that surpasses its original.

This time, it is Brydon – the happily married man – who is given the assignment to write restaurant reviews but this time it’s not the North of England but the Amalfi coast of Italy that is the destination and it is Coogan, whose American television show that he had accepted at the conclusion of the first movie has just been canceled, as the plus one.

The roles are somewhat reversed as Brydon, whose marriage seems to have lost its spark, flirts and at last has an affair with a pretty boat captain (Fellner) while Coogan goes all-out to reconnect with his son (Leach) whom he has rescued from a “boring Ibiza trip.” Yeah, we all know those endless discos and beach days can be a drag.

Like the first movie, the two comedians display dueling celebrity impressions, trade zingers and follow English romantic poets (in this case Shelley and Keats) while sampling gourmet food (with plenty of food porn shots) and seemingly ignoring the grand vistas of the Amalfi coast. Winterbottom makes sure that there are plenty of homages to Hollywood classics from the Mini-Cooper that the two men rent (from the original The Italian Job) to the spectacular cliffside Casa Malaparte that Godard used to such great effect in Contempt to the Camparian villa where John Huston and Humphrey Bogart shot parts of Beat the Devil.

And of course those impressions I mentioned. Expanding on the Michael Caine-a-rama that they utilized in the first movie, they expand it into a Batman-centric affair which morphs into a harried assistant director trying to get Tom Hardy to enunciate more clearly as Bane. It is one of the more hysterical moments you’ll see all year.

There’s also Brydon’s signature Small Man in a Box which he uses in Pompeii to our great amusement and Coogan’s disgust. I have to admit that it was a bit irreverent but I think we can safely say it’s not too soon.

I hope the two men continue to make movies together in this fashion (this is actually their third venture with Winterbottom playing versions of themselves). Hopefully this will achieve the kind of success the first film did, pulling in north of two million dollars which for an indie which got virtually no promotion is outstanding. This is actually opening in July (and is slated to come to the Enzian the following month) but as this is the last of my Florida Film Festival reviews for awhile, hopefully this will whet your appetite (figuratively and literally) for the movie when it does make its way to a theater (hopefully) near you.

REASONS TO GO: Coogan and Brydon are just as funny together. Wonderful cinematography.

REASONS TO STAY: Pretty much the same film as the first only more of it.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of salty language here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As with the first movie, first saw the light of day as a miniseries on the BBC which was later condensed down to feature film form for theatrical release.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Life in Ruins

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Fault in Our Stars

Million Dollar Arm


Jon Hamm misses the obvious.

Jon Hamm misses the obvious.

(2014) True Sports Drama (Disney) Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Bill Paxton, Aasif Mandvi, Alan Arkin, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash, Darlshan Jarlwala, Gregory Alan Williams, Allyn Rachel, Tzi Ma, Rey Maualuga, Bar Paly, Al Sapienza, Jaspaul Sandhu, Lata Shukla, Harish Shandra, Yashwant Joshi, Mike Pniewski, Suehyla El-Attar, Autumn Dial, Gabriela Lopez. Directed by Craig Gillespie

Baseball, that most American of all sports, has gone global. Asian teams routinely win the Little League World Series and there have been Major League players from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China. Latin America has long been a pipeline of major league baseball stars. There are even European players in the Majors. One of the places that have gone largely untapped, however, is India.

J.B. Bernstein (Hamm) is a sports agent. He’s a pretty good one, good enough to buy himself a good life; a beautiful house, a Porsche, a downtown L.A. office and a steady stream of models to date. He’s also cocky enough to think that he doesn’t need the big agency he works for, so he strikes out on his own with his partner Aash (Mandvi). There he finds out that things aren’t quite so easy.

In fact, they’re near impossible. With his agency nearly bankrupt, they are relying on signing a high-profile NFL linebacker named Popo (Maualuga) to save their bacon. However, when he is swept away by the omnipresent agents from a big corporate agency, they and their receptionist Theresa (Rachel) are left to ponder what to do next.

For J.B., the answer comes at him like a bolt of lightning. He is sitting at home, binge drinking beers and aimlessly switching back and forth on the channels of his satellite TV between Indian cricket and the talent show Britain’s Got Talent when it hits him – India has more than a billion people that don’t follow baseball. If they could find a couple of pitchers from India, guys used to bowling in cricket, it might open up a brand new market much like Fernandomania did in Mexico.

He pitches it to a Chinese-American gazillionaire named Chang (Ma) who likes the concept and decides to invest. JB wants a major league scout to go with him. Aash can’t find one but does find a retired scout named Ray (Arkin) who might just have narcolepsy but who really knows his stuff. Aided by a laid-back Indian handler named Vivek (Jarlwala) and a baseball-obsessed translator who wants to be a coach someday named Amit (Pitobash), he goes on a tour of India, setting up tryouts for the show which proves to be quite popular. Out of the tryouts he finds two prospects – Rinku (Sharma) who is gangly and graceful with an odd ritual before throwing the ball, and Dinesh (Mittal) who is a powerful thrower with control problems. The two winners accompany JB back to America.

There they will be as bewildered and confused by American culture as JB was by theirs. Working with former major league pitcher Tom House (Paxton) who now coaches at the University of Southern California, they know nothing about the game and have to be trained in the basics of fielding and batting, not to mention having their throwing motion worked on (incidentally, neither one of them played critic and both were ambivalent about the game both in the film and real life). JB kind of leaves them to the wolves.

That doesn’t sit well with Brenda (Bell), who rents the back unit of JB’s house and has gotten to know the boys. She knows they need to know he cares about them; that they feel lost and alone and without support. Of course, you know she and JB will develop a relationship but can these two raw talents from India beat the odds and get signed to a major league contract?

This is a Disney true life sports underdog movie so you can probably guess the answer to that question (and if you can’t, you can always Google it). Like a lot of these films that have come from Disney of late, this follows pretty much the same formula. Fortunately, there are some things that set it apart.

The sequences in India are colorful and amazingly shot. You get a sense of the chaotic conditions in that country, from the traffic to the lack of hygiene to the kind of crumbling colonial infrastructure that remains in a titanic bureaucracy. All that’s missing is the distinctive odor that, as Hamm puts it, comes and goes.

Lake Bell, so good in In a World… continues to develop into one of Hollywood’s most distinctive actresses. She’s smart, pretty and can be glamorous when she needs to be but seems much more comfortable in scrubs than in fancy dresses. She makes a fine foil for the likable Hamm who is looking for life after Don Draper. His role is surprisingly complex; he’s been able to get by on his charm and a grin, but that is no longer the case and he doesn’t quite know what to do about it. He also can be a bit of a jerk although he’s basically not a bad guy. In short, like most guys.

They do have Arkin amongst the fine supporting cast but he spends most of the movie literally asleep, which is a waste of the talents of a guy like Arkin. Mandvi, one of the funniest guys on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is utilized mainly as the straight man here and while he gets his share of comedic moments, again this isn’t really what he’s best at. The two young Indian actors garner empathy, but they aren’t developed well enough to go much farther than “fish out of water” status.

This is decently entertaining; you won’t go wrong by spending your ten bucks on it at the multiplex, but it isn’t anything that you’ll go home wanting to see again. While the Indian sequences certainly looked pretty marvelous on the big screen, I wouldn’t blame you for waiting to catch this on home video, but as I said, there are things that elevate it above the sports film cliches that it is desperately trying to cling to. All that’s missing is Hamm screaming “Show me the money!”

REASONS TO GO: Hamm and Bell are endearing. India sequences are quite enjoyable.

REASONS TO STAY: Formulaic. Arkin is wasted.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few mild swear words and some suggestive content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real J.B. Bernstein wasn’t an agent. He was (and is) a sports marketer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Invincible

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Blended