Rated ‘R’ for strong brutal violence, pervasive strong language, drug use and some sexuality.
Stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, James Woods, Don Rickles, Alan King, L.Q. Jones, Frank Vincent, Kevin Pollak, Pasquale Cajano.
When did Martin Scorsese depart his endlessly experimental Sam Fuller period and cross over to the dull side by hemorrhaging equal doses of David Lean’s picturesque vacuity and the well-intentioned messaging of Stanley Kramer? The crushing letdown sustained by his last three pictures is almost too much to bear. Silence appeared to have been made in order to avoid litigation that stemmed from a verbal agreement the director had with Italian producer Vittorio Cecchi Gori after the release of Kundun (1997). Next up, the made-for-Netflix gangster rehash, The Irishman. Given the film’s limited theatrical release, Scorsese, knowing full well that the majority of the viewing public would watch the film in their home theaters, shot accordingly. I preferred it when the director, not the medium, dictated shot size. With well over half the picture framed in TV safe tight shots, the end result was more closeups than a colonoscopy. When it came to trafficking in messages, Martin Scorsese once prided himself on being a master smuggler. His latest feature, Killers of the Flower Moon, is a bloated message picture, felling viewers with an overinflated sense of manufactured prestige and self-importance. We’ll have more to say on Flower Moon when it settles on physical media. Until then, there’s a newly remastered edition of 1995’s Casino to savor, and boy, do we need it now!
No contemporary American filmmaker in my lifetime has done more to preserve film and encourage the theatrical life cycle of motion pictures than he. Taxi Driver made such a profound impact on my 21-year-old psyche that I was halfway through the 4:30 presentation before realizing the 2:15 matinee had ended. The Landmark Varsity in Evanston, Ill., brought it back on Oct. 6, 1981, the same day Anwar Sadat was assassinated. The crowd was anything but the somber gathering one might have expected. They greeted Travis Bickle as they would a character in a screwball comedy. True comedic force. I’ve never looked at the film the same way since. Offscreen, film-devotee Scorsese was the first to decry the multiplexing of American single screens in the name of staggered showtimes. Knowing that greater numbers of viewers were watching films on home video, he waited until 1991 — when TV screens were big enough and viewers finally tolerant enough to deal with a letterboxed image — to at last shoot a picture in Panavision.
Raging Bull was filmed in black-and-white to protest what he understood to be a crisis in unstable color film stock. I was working the day watch out of dispatch at Cablevision when Raging Bull first played on HBO. A customer called to complain that she heard profanity coming from the driver’s two-way radio. Was it wrong to try and bring a smile to the faces of my co-workers in the field by hitting the push-to-talk button every time a certain line of dialogue, something about Salvi and an elephant, came on? (I was written up and almost fired over it.) I’ve seen it so many times that my lips move while I’m watching it.
Goodfellas is Mean Streets is I Call First: all masterpieces, but after his debut gangster outing there wasn’t much in the way of cinematic headway. Mean Streets is raw cinema compared to the more polished Goodfellas, and if hard pressed, the nerves struck in I Call First (a much stronger title than Who’s That Knocking at My Door?) are more brutally honest than anything else in Scorsese’s canon. Casino is a wall-to-wall rollick, the director’s only unmitigated comedy and a definite advancement in gangster picture-making. At their core, Scorsese protagonists are thinly veiled Christ figures. After years of experimenting, Scorsese finally worked through his Christ fixation by killing Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) in reel one, only to have him resurrected in reel seven.
The astonishing opening hour — a historically resplendent introduction to the inner workings of Las Vegas — can hold its own alongside any of the so-called “legitimate” documentaries on the subject. And “Moonglow” in the money room? Nothin’ finer! This time, he not only gave New York a rest, he let the Italians off the hook by handing the Jews a thorough working over. The result is some of the funniest dialogue in any of his films, and without the hint of irony associated with the ending of Taxi Driver. The laughs keep building at a steady flow until reaching the point of it ain’t funny no more. The culmination is Scorsese’s most unrelentingly effective use of violence to date. We’re not talking “cool” violence like the fountain pen tracheotomy. The final act of inhumanity leaves an indelible mark, making it impossible to unsee the barbaric demise of the Spilotro Brothers substitutes. The whacking and subsequent desert deposition of Nicky (Joe Pesci) and Frank (Frank Vincent) is a chilling update of the time-honored “crime doesn’t pay” dictum.
Lastly, the resurrection of Rothstein isn’t the only thing Scorsese aced. For the first (only?) time, Scorsese presents us with a strong female character capable of running with the herd. As for the special features, they’re all holdovers from previous pressings.