Casino (10/4/12)

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Casino is based on true mob dealings in the 1970s Las Vegas scene.

Several midwestern mafia families decide to use Las Vegas gambling to their own advantage and leverage Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) to run the Tangiers casino. The bosses also send out Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) to have one of their own in Vegas. Ace runs into hustler Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) and tries to lure her into a luxurious life away from her sleazy boyfriend, Lester (James Woods). As business is booming, profits are skimmed off the top and sent to the bosses but this eventually catches up to them and threatens their entire Vegas mob empire.

Casino is the longest movie I have watched to date (this year) at 178 minutes and as such, I feel like any abbreviation of the plot is a complete disservice to such a magnificent film. While I have long praised Goodfellas as my favorite movie of all time, I think Casino may be Scorsese’s most well-crafted film. Even in spite of its length the plot never veers away from being interesting or compelling and the story Casino weaves is mesmerizing. Goodfellas is still my favorite film (both of all-time and of Scorsese’s catalog), but Casino is truly a masterpiece.

Society’s inherent interest in the mafia plays such a strong role in cinema and oftentimes that love is masked behind fear. I’ve always wondered just how closely some of these shows and films capture the American mafia scene but I really think that Casino is probably one of the most realistic interpretations, largely in part to the actual events that it is based on. Frank Rosenthal and Anthony Spilotoro, the real-life counterparts of Casino’s Rothstein and Santoro, have an interesting story even without it being fictionalized and sensationalized. I’m sure some liberties were taken other than changing the casino’s name, and Ginger’s character seems largely fictional to me, but arguably the most interesting parts of the framework come from reality and to me, that makes Casino interesting by default.

The only things that could possibly detract from Casino for some viewers are the length, the violence, and the language – Casino is a movie with the fifth most frequent uses of the f-word. If you are able to look past those things, Casino is one of the greatest films ever made. I would be hard-pressed to defend my favorite, Goodfellas, against it.

I give it 5 Tangiers casinos out of 5.

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Goodfellas (5/16/12 and 7/15/12)

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Goodfellas is based on the true life story of Henry Hill, a former member of the New York mob.

Goodfellas starts with a young Henry (Ray Liotta) growing up working for mob boss Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), first as a porter and errand boy and eventually one of the leading members. We meet other mob members Tommy and Jimmy (Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, respectively) and the three have differing experiences with the mafia lifestyle. Life changes for all of them after a particularly large heist.

Some of the most dedicated followers may know that I consider Goodfellas my favorite movie of all time. My above plot synopsis doesn’t do the film much justice, it doesn’t touch on any of the characters, the humor, the dialogue, the violence, the allure of the mafia, the directing, the soundtrack, the acting…I could go on. Goodfellas is one of those films where everything just works and it is essential viewing for anyone that has heard the name, Martin Scorsese.

The legacy of Goodfellas has carried on through popular culture since it’s release in 1990. While some may argue The Godfather made mafia films “mainstream” but I would contend that Goodfellas played a bigger hand in our perception of the modern mob. It was even parodied on the children’s cartoon, Animaniacs and anyone that watched the HBO show Sopranos should recognize most of the cast from Goodfellas.

If I had my way, I could watch Goodfellas every week for the rest of my life. It’s one of those films that is just an absolute joy to watch and even though I’m trying to expand my viewing horizon this year, it has been a struggle to go five months without watching it.

I give it 5 Copacabana scenes out of 5.

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Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (4/11/12)

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Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is one of  only four feature full-length films by Martin Scorsese I had never seen but had always heard about. To be honest, I didn’t think the film sounded very interesting but I was wrong.

For better or worse, depending on your opinion of the man, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore did not feel like a Scorsese film to me. Granted, this is from 1974 and one of his earliest works, but Ellen Burstyn is really the highlight of this movie.

Set in the desert, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is about a woman (Ellen Burstyn) who becomes a widow and decides to pick up from New Mexico with her son and travel to Monterey, California. Unfortunately, they run out of money and end up in Phoenix and then Tuscon, Arizona. Alice wants to sing, but ends up working as a waitress. She has to grow into her new role and deal with new rejections and romances.

If it sounds like a “chick flick” it kind of is, but no more so than a film like Thelma and Louise. A strong female lead tends to make people write movies like this off but Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore manages to be unique in several ways. First and foremost, the film is funny. Burstyn is an absolute joy, especially when dealing with her son. The movie also doesn’t take the road of “we had a struggle but now everything is magical” like so many current “chick flicks” do. We know Alice will do what it takes to get by and we know her life will probably not get much easier, but we know she will be okay.

While it certainly isn’t one of my favorite Scorsese movies, I would recommend it. The characters and their relationships are something missing from so many movies that could be lumped in the same genre as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and that isn’t fair to it.

I give it 4 “can I touch your beard?”s out of 5.

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Hugo (3/2/12)

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Hugo was probably my second favorite movie of 2011 after Drive. While it seems like a stark departure from his usual movies, Martin Scorsese directs a film for all ages and the result is a fantastic love story to early cinema.

Originally, I was not sold on the idea of Hugo. The trailers I had seen made it seem like the adventures of an orphan living a Paris train station and nothing more. What makes the film so special is the link to the work of pioneer filmmaker, Georges Méliès. The work of Méliès helped shape the films we know today. Hugo portrays some of his work masterfully and it is truly awe-inspiring, even today.

Hugo is about a young boy that lives in a Parisian train station. We learn that Hugo and his father, a watchmaker, were working on fixing an old automaton when his father dies in a fire. His uncle, the train station’s clock keeper, takes Hugo in and shows him how to maintain all of the clocks in the station. As a side project, Hugo steals parts from a toy shop to fix his automaton. He befriends the goddaughter of shop owner, and the mystery of the automaton is revealed.

The cinematic history lesson is the bulk of the second half of the film, and I would wager that most young children that wanted to see the movie would begin to grow bored. While Hugo is made for all ages, I truly believe it has an older audience in mind. For those interested in the movie, I would also recommend reading the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which is heavily illustrated and just as magical as its film counterpart.

Hugo is not like any other Scorsese film yet it has his feel to it (and a cameo in the film). When I saw the movie in 3D in theaters, I was skeptical of the use of 3D but thoroughly enjoyed the effect. While I do not have a 3D home theater setup, I would recommend a 3D viewing for those of you that do. For the rest of us, the regular DVD/Blu-Ray is still fantastic.

I give it 5 A Trip to the Moons out of 5.

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The Departed (2/29/12)

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This was my special Leap Year movie!

The Departed is one of my favorite films by Martin Scorsese. Without knowing that is is an Americanized version of the Hong Kong thriller, Infernal Affairs, The Departed feels very much like an original Scorsese movie.

I have not seen Infernal Affairs yet, but I am very interested in seeing the entire trilogy. While many international remakes may tend to lose the allure and vibrancy of their original, The Departed is so strong on its own that I simply cannot imagine the original being any better.

The story is a bit confusing at first; A young boy is recruited by a mobster (the illustrious Jack Nicholson). That boy becomes a cop (Matt Damon). We see another man becoming a cop (Leonardo DiCaprio). Matt Damon is working for Nicholson as his inside man in the force. DiCaprio becomes an undercover cop in Nicholson’s crew as the inside man for the cops. Both Damon and DiCaprio are trying to find out who each other is.

It is intensely thrilling from start to finish and while things do start making sense eventually, but multiple viewings surely help. This was my third or fourth viewing since its release and I still was putting certain pieces together. When my father watched this movie several years ago he mentioned that he thought that Damon and DiCaprio were the same person, which must have made the whole movie an incomprehensible mess for him, assuming he never figured out that they were two different people.

The plot weaves in and out and it does take a bit of patience and a lot of attention. The pacing is terrific and once the film grabs you by the throat it doesn’t let go until the credits roll. For those of you wondering, Goodfellas is my favorite movie of all time and I love Scorsese’s work. The Departed ranks as one of his stronger films and I would definitely recommend it to anyone willing to possibly get confused even if you are fully vested in watching.

I give it 5 leopard print robes out of 5.

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Gangs of New York (2/14/12)

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On paper, Gangs of New York should be an outstanding work of cinematic genius. In practice the movie has several high points but falls short, resulting in disappointment.

One of the main strengths of Gangs of New York is Daniel Day-Lewis playing Bill “The Butcher”. Day-Lewis is such a tremendous actor and this is one of his best roles, in my opinion. Leonardo DiCaprio is solid, but I always have a hard time seeing him as anybody but himself. Having Cameron Diaz in the movie seems unnecessary to me. When a film is two and half hours long, we don’t need a love story thrown into the mix.

The plot at its most basic is about rival gangs controlling territory of New York and fighting for political power as well. DiCaprio’s father was killed by Day-Lewis and he is out for revenge. It is rooted in factual history, and is even based on a nonfiction book. This history is somewhat lost in some of the over-the-top sets and characters, though.

Something that should be a major asset to the movie is Martin Scorsese, but I never felt like I was watching a Scorsese movie. As I mentioned before, the film is quite long (167 minutes) and it feels like it. Calling it “bloated” may not be fair, but it is definitely  unfocused. Personally, I think a better story could have been told in under two hours if some parts had been reeled in.

Despite some disappointments, Gangs of New York is still a good movie but it’s not the level of quality we have come to associate with Scorsese’s films.

I give it 3 glass eyes out of 5.

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