Casino (Remastered Edition)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Universal;
Drama;
$21.98 Blu-ray;
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.

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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.

Injustice

4K ULTRA HD REVIEW:

Warner;
Animated;
$29.98 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for bloody violence.
Voices of Justin Hartley, Anson Mount, Laura Bailey, Zach Callison, Brian T. Delaney, Brandon Micheal Hall, Edwin Hodge, Oliver Hudson, Gillian Jacobs, Yuri Lowenthal, Derek Phillips, Kevin Pollak, Anika Noni Rose, Reid Scott, Faran Tahir, Fred Tatasciore, Janet Varney. 

While comic book superheroes have been likened to a modern form of mythology, stories about the characters tend to be constrained by a desire for them to inhabit a reality that for the most part mirrors our own.

This needs stems mostly from the nature of a recurring medium that allows the storytelling to remain topical to the times. Rather than exploring how the heroes could use their powers to impact problems on a global scale, most stories tend toward the heroes fighting evil counterparts of themselves, the supervillains, whose defeat allows humanity to continue along its own course while giving the heroes something to do.

Occasionally, though, the writers of these stories do explore how such characters could change the world if they were real, usually in the form of one-off adventures outside of ongoing continuity.

Marvel famously did this on a regular basis with the “What If…?” comics that were adapted into the Disney+ animated series. DC Comics did something similar with its “Elseworlds” branding, which had been preceded decades earlier by the “imaginary story” that put its characters in situations that didn’t have to return to the status quo for the next month.

Along those lines, Injustice asks what if the superpowered heroes of DC Comics decided to impose their own sense of justice upon the world.

The animated movie is based on the video game Injustice: Gods Among Us and its comic book tie-ins, the plot serving essentially as an excuse for a versus game that allowed various DC heroes to fight each other “Mortal Kombat” style.

The hero at the center of the story of Injustice is Superman, who learns Lois is pregnant with his child. Before he can celebrate, however, the Joker unleashes a scheme that involves tricking Superman into killing Lois and setting of a nuclear bomb that destroys Metropolis.

Consumed by the grief of losing his true love, Superman (voiced by Justin Hartley) and declares his intentions to impose order on the world so that such acts of evil can never happen again. Giving into his anger, Superman begins a killing spree against the Justice League’s enemies, anointing himself the world’s judge, jury and executioner and setting him down the path of tyranny. His change in philosophy fractures this Justice League, with some joining him on his new mission, while others, led by Batman (Anson Mount) vow to stop him.

The ensuing conflict is brutal, as the film earns its ‘R’ rating with bloody fight sequences that yield a high body count of heroes that normally couldn’t be killed off so casually.

Fans of the Injustice games and comics have voiced misgivings over the way the movie omitted many storylines and changed others while cramming as much as it could into a 78-minute running time. Those who are able to engage the film on its own merits, however, might find it to be an engaging superhero allegory that speaks to the heated political times in which we live.

The story plays into an underlying debate over security vs. freedom that has some obvious real-world parallels. At various points in the story, Superman decides to implement covert surveillance on all of humanity, while demanding an extreme version of gun control.

While the film isn’t afraid to go dark, it’s not without its lighter side and the occasional moment of levity. One highlight is the pairing of Harley Quinn (Gillian Jacobs) with Green Arrow (Reid Scott) in an oddly effecting partnership.

The Blu-ray includes one featurette, the half-hour “Adventures in Storytelling: Injustice — Crisis and Conflict,” a roundtable discussion of some of the films’ creators talking about the source material and the different themes explored by the story.

Also included is the two-part “Injustice for All” two-part episode of the “Justice League” animated series that originally aired in 2002.

Mixed Martial Arts Story ‘Notorious Nick’ Coming to Digital Rental Aug. 6, DVD and Digital Purchase Aug. 17

The underdog mixed martial arts story Notorious Nick will be available in select theaters and for digital rental Aug. 6, and on DVD and for digital purchase Aug. 17 from Lionsgate.

Cody Christian (TV’s “All American” and “Teen Wolf”) stars in the underdog tale based on a true story. In the film, even though he was born with a partial left arm, Nick Newell (Christian) dreams of being a fighter. After wrestling in high school, Nick becomes a fierce competitor when his best friend Abi introduces him to mixed martial arts. Suddenly, a tragedy provides Nick with an unexpected opportunity.

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From a producer of BloodsportKickboxer and Death Warrant, the film also stars Barry Livingston, Elisabeth Röhm (American Hustle) and Kevin Pollak (The Usual Suspects).

The Front Runner

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 2/12/19;
Sony Pictures;
Drama;
Box Office $2 million;
$30.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for language including some sexual references.
Stars Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Sara Paxton, Mamoudou Athie, Spencer Garrett, Ari Graynor, Kaitlyn Dever, Steve Zissis, Bill Burr, Mike Judge, Kevin Pollak, Tommy Dewey, Molly Ephraim, Josh Brener.

The bright future of a rising political star runs smack into the maxim that “a lot can happen in three weeks” in director Jason Reitman’s exploration of the relationship between politics and media.

The Front Runner isn’t much of a political movie, in that it doesn’t overtly deviate into policy debates. Nor does it lay out any easy answers or preach to the audience what to think.

The docudrama relates the brief campaign of former Colorado senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) for the presidential election of 1988, when he was considered the most likely nominee upon entering the race in April 1987.

Hart had come close to becoming the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 1984 and was considered a favorite for securing the spot for 1988. However, dogged by rumors of womanizing, Hart challenged a Washington Post reporter to follow him around, claiming anyone who did so would be “very bored.” Subsequently, a team from the Miami Herald decided to do just that after receiving an anonymous tip that Hart was having an affair was planning to host the girl in Washington, D.C.

When the Herald reported that Hart had been seen at his home with a potential campaign worker named Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), the story exploded, though Hart denied having any inappropriate relationship.

Hart bristled at the notion that the public and the media should have any interest in a politician’s private life, but the exposure took a toll on his family, and within a week his political career was over (save for a brief return to the presidential race in December 1987, which the movie doesn’t get into, and some appointments during the Obama administration).

Reitman, who co-wrote the screenplay with journalist Matt Bai and political operative Jay Carson, describes the event as a defining moment of tabloid journalism swerving into politics, fueled by the expansion of telecommunications technology and the rise of the 24-hour news cycle.

In the past, members of the media had made an almost tacit agreement to ignore the infidelities of the politicians they covered. But at some point, notions of character and morality began to intertwine with notions of policy and perceptions of leadership, shining an ever-wider spotlight on the personal lives of those seeking the public trust.

The Front Runner

As relayed in the bonus materials, in Reitman’s eyes, the Hart incident serves to presage a modern media environment in which every scrap of social media will be scoured, every statement dredged up and over-analyzed, and every stone unturned in an effort to extract a partisan toll.

In terms of framing the story, then, Reitman asks two competing questions: “what is important?” versus “what is entertaining?” Accordingly, he constructs almost every scene to give the audience more than one thing to focus on, putting it on the viewer to decide what is more important to the story, and how it reflects the overall message of the film.

But in leaving so much for the audience to decide, The Front Runner ends up as more of a conversation starter than a definitive statement on the issue.

Fortunately, the regular trappings of cinema on hand make for an otherwise entertaining movie. The performances are spot on, and Reitman does a nice job handling an all-star cast whose orbs of influence only occasionally intersect.

Likewise, Reitman deftly captures the feel of the 1980s with some subtle camerawork that reinforces the costumes and set design in evoking the mood of the period. In particular, Reitman notes, is his insistence on letting the rawness of the film as a medium speak for itself, and not to clean up the image using modern computer editing.

The Blu-ray includes an audio commentary with Reitman, producer Helen Estabrook, production designer Steve Saklad, costume designer Danny Glocker and cinematographer Eric Steelberg, in which they delve into all the techniques and artistic touches they layered into the film.

There’s also a 15-minute featurette called “The Unmaking of a Candidate” that touches on the making of the film and the themes it’s exploring.

There are also three deleted scenes, including a slightly alternate opening sequence, that run about four-and-a-half minutes.