By Marc S. Sanders

When a movie is set in Las Vegas, doesn’t it feel like it should be overly exaggerated, maybe a little loud, and quite bombastic?  That’s how I feel about Martin Scorsese’s three-hour opus, Casino.  The film opens with a car bomb exploding our primary narrator, Sam “Ace” Rothstein into the skies where he then makes his descent into the expansive signs that light up sin city in the desert.

Ace (Robert DeNiro) runs The Tangiers Casino.  He was especially picked by the mid-west Mafia back home (St. Louis, Mo.) to oversee everything that happens at the casino.  He’s looking for cheaters.  He’s making sure blueberry muffins live up to their name.  He’s dodging the FBI and their hidden bugs.  Most importantly, he’s making sure hefty suitcases are walked out of the casino and delivered on a monthly basis to the wise guys he has to answer to, and those deliveries better not come up light.  These guys treasure Ace because he never loses a bet.  Not one.  He can predict the outcome of any sports contest.  He can beat the odds on any table.  Ace is the best at his job because he also works eighteen hours out of every day, and he makes a lot of money for his superiors.

Everything should go smoothly.  However, the mob has also allowed Ace’s childhood friend, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) to move out to Vegas.  Nicky is a heavy.  It’s not wise to upset or anger Nicky, because it’ll likely be the last time you ever do.  He’ll kick you when you’re down on the ground, but he’ll also stab you with a pen an endless number of times.  Don’t get your head caught in a vice when you are around Nicky.  This bull might have been sent out as a toughie to protect Ace and his work, but he’s not subtle about his methods.  When law enforcement gets involved, it only causes interference for Nicky and his crew to get back in the casinos or even in to Vegas.  Because Nicky won’t settle for that, it’s only going to make things harder, and especially challenging for Ace.

Ace’s other problem focuses on the one bet he did lose in life, and that was marrying Ginger (Sharon Stone in an Oscar nominated performance).  She’s a high-class hooker that Ace quickly becomes infatuated with, and the worst mistake he could have ever made was that he trusted her.  He trusted Ginger way too much.  Ginger may have quickly had a child and married Ace, but she never gave up on her loyalty to her scuzzy pimp, Lester (James Woods), and just wait until she starts carelessly confiding in Nicky.  Early on, everyone in the room, like even those in the comfort of their own homes, scream out loud why Ace would entrust a safe deposit box containing millions in cash with only Ginger’s name.  Ace can’t even get into the box if he wanted to.  He arranged it so that only Ginger could have access.  Keep the cash out of his name and the Feds can’t make a case.  As well, is Ace hiding his own interests from his own people?  Yet, that’s what he did.  He trusted his hooker wife way too much, way too often.

I’ve seen Casino a few times and I always leave it with the exact same problem.  I don’t think the film lives up to its title enough.  The first half of the film, while a similar blueprint to Goodfellas and later The Wolf Of Wall Street, is incredibly sweeping with Scorsese’s signature steady cams and voiceover work from DeNiro and Pesci.  You can travel from one end of the gambling hall, and then through clandestine back rooms and into secure areas all within sixty seconds.  Scorsese with a script from Nicholas Pileggi gives you a very fast education on how Ace operates a tight ship and keeps his mob superiors invested. 

Later, however, the film loses its way with an abundance of material on the Ginger character and how she is undoing Ace.  Stone gives an incredible performance as a constant drug and alcohol fueled spoiled brat of a trophy wife/former hooker.  She has wild outbursts that continuously threaten Ace and who he works for and with.  Minutes later, the film cuts to where the drugs have worn off and she comes back to her husband with her chinchilla coat draped over her shoulders.  The energy that Stone puts into this role must have exhausted her.  As a viewer, I get wiped out just watching her.  Yet, as engrossed the actress is in the part, what does it really have to do with life in a mob run casino? 

It’s not crazy to say that Las Vegas is city of at least 8 million stories.  It’s not called sin city for nothing.  In three hours’ time, much attention is given to how Ace’s casino funnels out monies to the mob.  Focus is also given to how they deceive the gaming commission and how Ace dodges the need to have a gaming license if he is to work at the casino.  There’s a great scene where he demonstrates what happens to cheaters who rip off the joint.  He also has to contend with the governing good ol’ boys who staked their claim in Nevada long before it became the gaming capital of the world.  If a dumb nephew is fired for not properly handling the slot machines, Ace is going to have to answer to someone with a big shot title.  Pileggi’s script is best in scenarios like this.  So, I can’t understand why he diverts his story into a domestic squabble of screaming and shoving between a husband and wife. 

The Ace/Ginger storyline populates over one third of the movie and then not much is talked about with the casino.  There are broken glasses and screaming and crying and drug fueled rages and opportunities to beat up Lester and now the film has become a personal picture, rather than Las Vegas mob cycle we were invited to observe.

Ironically, what I always hoped to gain from Casino is only a tease at the end, when Ace narrates how Las Vegas segued from mob rule and sold out to corporate America, even comparing it to Disney Land.  A wise shot is provided showing the senior citizens entering the doors of the casinos en masse, dressed in their sweat pants and polyester outfits ready to take a chance on the slots, not the more sophisticated gaming tables where the fat cats would lay down ten grand a hand.  Why couldn’t Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese devote time to this transition?  This seems like the bigger bet that Ace wouldn’t win out on.  Tons of married couples lose out and get married for the wrong reasons.  We’ve seen that kind of material before.  The real undoing of Ace Rothstein was likely the blue-chip organizations who pounced on what the mafia pioneered.  Hardly any of that is shown, only left to be implied.  I’m sorry, but Casino concludes on a missed opportunity.


By Marc S. Sanders

Monty Capuletti is played by Rodney Dangerfield in the comedy Easy Money. The name of the role is just there for script purposes really. This is basically just Rodney playing Rodney, and had he been in more scenes, this film would have been one of the all-time great comedies. It really would have been legendary. Unfortunately, it suffers from a side story that generates no laughs and bogs the picture down to a screeching halt.

Monty is a baby photographer, and I can’t think of a better or more appropriate occupation for Rodney Dangerfield to play for some easy, gut busting laughs. Let that sink in for a moment. Rodney Dangerfield…as a…baby photographer! I couldn’t contain myself when he was trying to get a plump toddler to sit still and finally unleashes a tirade of inappropriate expletives. Comedy works best when one party is tainted by another.

Monty drinks, smokes, gambles, overeats and often visits the local strip joints with his best pal, Nicky Cerone (a perfect partnership with Joe Pesci). His hoity mother-in-law (Geraldine Fitzgerald) has never approved of her daughter’s (Candice Azzara) marriage to this offensive slob. When mother passes away, she leaves Monty her ten-million-dollar furniture store enterprise to him, but only if he gives up on all of his habits as well as loses some weight. This is a perfect set up for a Rodney Dangerfield movie. Unfortunately, it does not go far enough with the gags.

The first thirty minutes are comedy gold as we see Monty and Nicky going from one moment of debauchery to the next. When they lose big on the horse races, I about died watching Nicky take to the field to punch out the rider. When they pick up the wedding cake for Monty’s daughter’s wedding and wedge it into the back of Nicky’s plumbing van next to the toilet, I had to pause the film to catch my breath and finish laughing. Plus, think for a moment of what’s gonna happen to that cake before the night is done. It’s more hilarious than you could possibly imagine. The first thirty minutes paint a perfect picture of Monty and his terrible ways.

When the turning point happens after Mother dies, the remaining hour only generates a handful of memorable moments. The film diverts to Jennifer Jason Leigh as Monty’s daughter who has now married a greasy gang member eager to take her virginity. She leaves the jerk on her wedding night and the film takes up too much time with the guy trying win her back. Dangerfield is not in much of this storyline, nor is Leigh. It focuses way too much on a boring performance from actor Taylor Negron as the jilted groom who is not funny in any way. As well, his selection of scenes come off unfinished at times. The groom, Julio, climbs to the outside of the second story of the house one night and falls off the pipe he’s holding on to, but you never see his reaction or where he lands. In Tom & Jerry cartoons, you were always treated to the aftermath of the fall or the big bang where little birds flew around poor Tom’s head. Did the editors just fall asleep in post?

The wedding ceremony at church and the reception in the fenced in New Jersey backyard? Now that’s funny. Really funny. Just look at the outfits for one thing. Purple tuxedos for the groomsmen. Lime green dresses for the bridesmaids and the inevitable overly, emotional, tears of joy family member who just won’t shut up. It’s a perfect tempo for laughs. I’m laughing as I recall this moment. The Italian gathering of hundreds of people dancing in a perfect overhead shot of a crammed in backyard is an absolute contrast to the elegance you’ll find in The Godfather.

Monty’s struggle with giving up on his unhealthy lifestyle is not touched upon enough and I can’t understand why. The door was wide open for these moments. Imagine Monty at an AA meeting or an Overeaters Anonymous gathering. Opportunities were missed in Easy Money. A perfect set up with not enough of an execution. I was ready to declare this film as Rodney’s best (better than Caddyshack or Back To School) but then the last hour settled in.

Easy Money is not a terrible movie. Far from it. It just could have been so much more. Watch the first thirty minutes, and then turn on Back To School to feel fulfilled.


By Marc S. Sanders

Goodfellas is my favorite film by Martin Scorsese. It’s a fast-paced roller coaster narrative of Irish street kid Henry Hill’s experience in the mob, dramatized from his real life as part of the Gambino crime family of New York.

“How am I funny?,” the Lufthansa heist, Spider takes it in the foot and then in the chest, Morrie’s Wigs, the piano montage from Derrick And The Dominos, Billy Batt’s demise followed by an early morning breakfast stopover at mom’s, and Henry’s helicopter paranoia. All of these elements are assembled to depict the perceived glamour and undoing of street level hoods, proud to steal and dress in the finest threads while bedding dames behind their wives’ backs.

Scorsese along with Nicholas Pileggi uncovered something special when they adapted Wiseguy (Pileggi’s book) for the screen. I think they struck a nerve because they showed these guys as men doing a routine living. There was a process to their deeds. Give a cut of your theft to the man above and keep the rest for yourself. Above all else, stay off the fucking phone. Get out of line and get whacked, unless you’re a “made guy.” This is all code, normal to Henry and his cohorts (Robert DeNiro as Jimmy Conway; Joe Pesci as Tommy DiSimone).

Moreover, the wives understood this behavior as well. Henry’s wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) knew these guys were not 9 to 5 husbands and the more it occurred, the more normal it all seemed. Including when the FBI presented a warrant to search the premises. Just let them in and go back to rocking the baby to sleep while watching Al Jolson on the box.

Scorsese took the best approach by not judging the actions of these raw criminals. They dressed well, but they weren’t reluctant to draw blood if an insult was tossed their way. Pesci, in an Oscar winning best performance, represents that philosophy. Scorsese, with his regular editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, are not shy about the violence. Watch how Jimmy and Tommy beat up a “made guy.” DeNiro just stomps his dress shoes into the guy’s face over and over. Pesci pistol whips him, but before he can shoot him, he breaks the gun…on the guy’s face. The romance of gangster life quickly undoes itself in moments like this. As Henry notes, your friends come at you with smiles before they whack you.

Ray Liotta is Henry, the primary narrator and centerpiece of the film. Most of the story is from his perspective. I’m sorry that Liotta didn’t get much award recognition. He really deserved it. His voiceover narration is superb. It gives a feeling like I’m talking to Henry in a bar with his tales of Mafia code and life in the criminal underworld. His voiceover is conversational. He’s also got great expressions of disregard, anger, and intense, raging fear on screen. When Henry is at his worst, his eyes are dry red, and his skin is pale and craggily. None of that is just makeup at work. That’s Ray Liotta performing with an exhausted energy in character. Watch the scene following his 3rd act incarceration where he argues with Karen over the last of their drug supply being flushed down the toilet. It’s not so much a party anymore. The manic response couldn’t feel more real as he slams his hand against the wall and then crouches up into a weeping ball of helplessness in the corner, on the floor.

Liotta and Bracco have sensational chemistry together in scenes of their courting nature when they first meet, followed by the ongoing, bickering abuse that enters their married life. There’s a great hysteria to them. Bracco got a nomination for her role. She deserved it.

Scorsese is a master at filming basic gestures as well to show the nature of these mob guys and their crimes. A key folded in a paper is then inserted into a knob and a stash is walked off with. A blood-soaked revolver is placed in a tin box and then Schoonmaker cuts over to the customary stomping of a glass at a Jewish wedding. Every prop and detail are connected.

Even better is Martin Scorsese depicting the wise guys’ incarceration midway through the film. Watch how the head mob boss Pauly (Paul Sorvino) slices onion with a razor for dinner complete with steaks broiling, pork sauce bubbling and even lobster ready to be boiled. Scorsese and Pileggi found it important to depict how attractive this life could be, despite a stretch in the joint or the violence that might come. Pay off the right guys and you could live like kings.

The master director doesn’t stop there. His selection of doo wop and rock period music paints the historical palette of the 50s through 80s. Music was being played and life was happening all the while an underhanded way of crime and violence occurred.

One of the best blends of film and song occurs during the classic one-shot steady cam where Henry escorts Karen through the back way of the famed nightclub, Copacabana. It’s one of the greatest scenes ever in movies. The walk journeys downstairs, through the kitchen, past wait staff, cooks, bouncers, people necking and to a front and center table to see Henny Youngman’s stand-up routine. The sequence is accompanied by the song “And Then He Kissed Me.” It’s a great character description to display a young guy, proud of his gangster image, with a whole world ahead of him and everyone offering their respects while he hands out twenty-dollar bills like gift coupons. This young guy had power, and the girl holding his hand couldn’t be more impressed.

Goodfellas is one of the greatest mob movies ever made. It’s one of my favorite films. It’s genuine in its grit and language. Every F-word uttered is necessary to translate the regard for code, or the blatant disregard for the law, loyalty within a crew, or even the ethics of marriage. It astounds me that it didn’t win Best Picture in 1990, losing to Dances With Wolves. Perhaps it got cancelled out with fellow mob nominee The Godfather Part III.

Regardless, the film struck a chord and pioneered a new way of showing criminals in celebration of themselves while sometimes encountering the inconvenience of the law or the women in their lives or worse, the betrayals among themselves. At any given moment you might rat on your friend and not keep your mouth shut.

Without Goodfellas, The Sopranos might not have been as welcomed into the pop culture lexicon. Maybe even the films of Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie or Paul Thomas Anderson, or even other Scorsese projects yet to come.

Goodfellas is an electrifying film of unabashed humor, realistic and shocking violence, and authentic culture within a well established crime syndicate.

Goodfellas is a must see film.


By Marc S. Sanders

Richard Donner, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover successfully triumphed in 1989’s summer of sequels with Lethal Weapon 2. It was a big box office smash thanks to the pairing of the two leading men making a memorable team with Donner expounding on the beloved humor that the first film provided.

The story is ho hum; South African drug dealers with diplomatic immunity. The top henchman, nick named “Adolf,” has a mysterious connection to kamikaze cop Martin Riggs (Gibson). Nothing so shocking though, and somewhat contrived.

The big star addition here is Joe Pesci as Leo Getz, the sleazy accountant who has embezzled half a billion dollars from the South Africans. Pesci is such a rare talent and he comes up with his own routine of comedy. He is as unique as any of the great comics like Milton Berle or Jackie Gleason or Jerry Lewis. Mind you this film was released before Home Alone and Goodfellas, and after Raging Bull. So, his addition to the franchise was a great surprise.

Getz is a fast talking material witness that Riggs with his partner Roger Murtaugh (Glover) are assigned to protect. However, with the cops’ nose for constant action, it’s not easy protecting the little guy when he won’t shut up or sit still.

“Lethal Weapon 2” is more an assemblage of fun set ups with run on gags. There’s Murtaugh’s daughter appearing in a condom commercial, much to his chagrin. There’s his wife’s new station wagon that is progressively getting wrecked thanks in part to Riggs’ crazy ways. Then there is Roger stuck on a bomb rigged toilet as another reason to damage his family’s home. The Three Stooges would be proud of this material.

There’s nothing new here really, but what makes it entertaining is the ongoing chemistry between Gibson and Glover, with Pesci. It’s apparent that these guys had to go off script at times from a screenplay by Jeffrey Boam, based on the characters created by Shane Black.

Donner does as expected with some great action scenes like a car chase to open the film and a careening tow truck that has Riggs hanging from the fender. There’s shootouts galore, as well.

The beautiful Patsy Kensit has a small romantic storyline with Gibson. It wouldn’t have been missed if it didn’t make the final cut, but it’s here and it’s serviceable.

Yeah, there are some contrived elements to Lethal Weapon 2 and the villains are not the greatest, but the heroes hold the film together, like a fun party on a Saturday night at your best pal’s place.