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Back Home Years Ago: The Real Casino

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 10/26/01 12:53:40

"A great start... in fact a dozen great starts... but then it's done."
3 stars (Average)

Joseph Alexandre's Back Home Years Ago: The Real Casino, started out as a seven minute piece for John Pierson's Split Screen TV show on the Independent Film Channel. Shot for $3500 (well, more than that, but that's all Alexandre could get Pierson to fork out for his seven minutes), it tells the stories of many of the real life mobsters that the characters in Martin Scorsese's Casino were based on, as told by many of the folks that were around at the time of 'the outfits' and involved int he lifestyle. The piece ran, it repeated and then it sat, but there's plenty of intriguing tales in amongst this footage, so Alexandre decided to give it a new lease of life and cut a half hour version. Good move.

The limitations of a seven minute timeslot are obvious, so when Alexandre decided to expand on the project and take a bit more time with the stories, it gave him a chance to use more of the interviews he'd shot first time around, focusing deeper on the people, the lifestyle, and the Hollywood myth. And there's a heck of a story in there waiting to be told.

But the move to expand is not without its problems, as it's clear that rounding up enough footage to fill a screen for half an hour when your subjects are A) in fear of their lives and not willing to come out of silhouette, or B) already dead, makes for a tough final edit. These mobsters weren't exactly media darlings, and there's not a lot of footage lying around of the wiseguys as they were. Tight budgets mean getting permission to use existing Hollywood movie clips isn't real easy either, so Alexandre went into guerilla filmmaker-mode and did what all good indie filmmakers do. He hammered the square pegs into round holes and made it work any way he could.

And he could. Using 'fair use' cuts from old mobster movies (anythling less than fifteen seconds is free, under 'fair use' copyright laws), stock news footage, re-enactments, silhouetted interviews, quick editing, varying camera formats and a lot of talking to the camera, The Real Casino pulls off the longer running time and does it easily. Making the best of a bad situation (or good one, depending on how you look at it), Alexandre has fashioned a good intro to himself as a filmmaker, shown his audience a lifestyle that many of us only see when Hollywood decides to glitter it up, and definitely delivered some bang for his (and Pierson's) buck.

However, The Real Casino is not without problems, and what lets the project down is certainly beyond the filmmaker's control. In fact, what lets it down is his subject matter is just too interesting for even the extended cut he's delivered. These stories by themself are each worthy of deeper investigation and more detailed telling. They're compelling, disturbing, and for the most part edge-of-your-seat stuff, but without the funds to have a team of researchers digging up visuals to go along with the words, what we're left with is a half hour of solid stuff; creative editing, intriguing interviews, but also a whole lot of silhouette and not nearly enough time to focus on the details.

Given the chance to do over, I dare say Alexandre may have done a few things differently. His reliance on single angle silhouettes does get a little tedious, and a bit more creativity with disguising the identity of his subjects (try one from behind, or from the ceiling, or from a security camera perhaps) may have given him more options in the final cut. The final beef this reviewer had is, though the quick editing is understandable, it would be nice to just sit and hear three sentences from one person without moving on to the next story before the last one is done.

But all that is being picky. If compared to the great films of our time, Alexandre himself would admit The Real Casino has some catching up to do. But if taken as a work that made the best of a bad situation, and somehow fashioned a compelling piece of documentary film out of scraps and pieces of footage from forty years ago, Alexandre has nothing to be ashamed about with this outing, especially as the hurdles he had to clamber over to get it even made, then recut, would have been sufficient to see most folks just let the project go.

There's diamonds in amongst the rough of this cut, and should Alexandre one day have the means to make the film it could have been, I've little doubt he will, and knock the socks off a lot of people doing so.

The Real Casino is a primer for indie filmmakers. A demonstration that no budget, no footage, and way too much story don't necessarily have to mean an unwatchable film. If Alexandre can make the best out of a situation like this, I'd wager he'll make something pretty damn good when he finally possesses the financial wherewithall to do so. Consider this the HBS Encouragement Award.

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