Thursday, June 30, 2011

Escape From Douchery, Part 7: Insert Coins

Insert Coins is a brand new Vegas concept, catering to a different kind of gamer than the town is historically known for attracting. While Las Vegas hosts the Pinball Hall of Fame and features a Gameworks arcade, the ultimate gamblers paradise is not particularly known as a video game haven, but all that may change now that Insert Coins has opened in Downtown Las Vegas in The Fremont Street district.

Insert Coins is a gamer's dream come true, featuring an impressive collection of classic, coin-operated standup arcade cabinets and nearly every console ever produced which you can play on big screen TVs while you lounge on on ultra comfy couches. The ultra-lounge/ arcade offers the same kind of bottle service you'd find at the trendiest Vegas clubs, at prices far below what you'd pay at those same trendy clubs... plus you get to play an Atari 2600 or a Dreamcast while you're treated like a VIP, instead of trying to look cool in a place that's packed to the gills because they club has advertised that Rhianna is supposed to show up for a guest appearance that never actually happens.

I'm normally against bottle service because it just seems like the only reason to spend the ridiculous amount of money that bottle service costs is to show off that you have enough money to afford bottle service, but when I found out it could be done for $100 in a "videolounge and gamebar," my buddies and I decided we had to give it a shot. We ordered a bottle of their finest whiskey (that we could afford at our price point), rented an Atari 2600, and got started trash-talking at each other as we played old-timey favorites like Missile Command, Dig Dug, and Joust (a game for which I have unmatchable skills in my group of friends), feeling confident that our alpha male command of 80's console classics would surely attract the ladies to our couch. No such luck, as the unattached women mostly stayed on the dance floor (and those that did watch us play for a few moments walked away because we all became too paralyzed with fear to turn around and say hello), where a DJ spun a more eclectic mix of music (read: heavy on Daft Punk, light on Ke$ha), reflecting the more eclectic (for Vegas) crowd that frequents the place. While my friend thought the reason none of the hotties joined our couch was because of Insert Coin's "appalling" omission of the historically terrible ET game, whose mythological badness he believed would be a sure conversation starter, I convinced my bros to get over their wallflower ways and to hit the dance floor... because I explained to them that while, yes the girls at the place were geeky-cool enough to frequent a place that calls itself a gamebar, we still had the responsibility to meet them at least halfway.

After downing a few more shots of liquid courage and berating each other through a few more rounds of Joust, I rallied my boys and got them dancin'. One of my normally-much-more awkward buddies met a very cute-glasses-wearing girl from Brooklyn and made out with her to the pulse of actually good dance music while they were lit by a very cool light show, and I swear I wasn't all that jealous even though she had that sexy librarian thing going for her that I love so dearly.

It was around 2 AM when I decided that Insert Coins was kind of my new favorite place in the world, or at least in Las Vegas, a hipster's dream come true that draws geeky cool folks (whom I started referring to as "my people" in a drunk and sentimental haze late into the night) with a perfectly mixed cocktail of good dance music, affordable drinks and a whole lot of classic video games. It's just another example of how Fremont Street is quickly becoming the Las Vegas equivalent of Los Feliz or Brooklyn, a neighborhood that draws the geeky, the artsy, the curious, the cultured and the strange... or in other words: my people.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Vegas Movies: The Hangover

The Hangover 2 has bowled over all kinds of box office records, grossing about $100 million over the long holiday weekend that it opened and passing the first Hangover film, previously the most successful R-rated comedy of all time, within just a few weeks of release. But box office success does not necessarily mean the movie is actually, you know, good. The Hangover 2 is one of the laziest sequels ever conceived by Hollywood; it's like the filmmakers made Xeorox copies of the screenplay from the surprise hit from two summers back and took black markers to it, replacing Las Vegas locations with seedier ones in Bangkok. That seems to be the extent of the "writing" that went into this film.

BUT! That's not the point of this article. This post will be the first in a series of "regular" (read "semi-regular" or, more accurately, "when I feel like writing them") posts about Vegas movies. And I could start this series by blogging about a Vegas classic like the original "Oceans Eleven" or Scorsese's "Casino" (or even "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous") but because "The Hangover" and stars Zach Galiafianakis (currently memeing hard for a few recent interviews that sparked a "is he an interesting and sensitive artist comedian who is uncomfortable with fame or is he just an asshole debate," one which I find stupid; can't a guy make fun of the bullshitty Hollywood machine without being branded a dick?), Ed Helms, and Bradley Cooper are all popular search terms this summer, I'm going to start the series by talking about the original "Hangover."

Wrong-headed or not, this is a movie that does a pretty good job of exploring the Vegas I'm familiar with and while I've never had a crazy adventure involving Mike Tyson's tiger, a stolen police car, and a naked Asian gangster, I have had my long Vegas dark nights of the soul followed by regret-filled mornings. There's times I've woken up in Las Vegas and wished I could forget the adventures of the previous evening, like the Rufied heroes of The Hangover, who spend most of the picture's running time trying to fill in the gaps of what the eff happened the night before as they search for their friend who is supposed to be married back in Los Angeles before the metaphorical ticking clock built into the screenplay goes off. The fact that the groom-to-be is played by the likable enough yet totally bland Justin Bartha (who is barely in the movie and never really seems like he's friends with the rest of the characters beyond the characters saying out loud what good friends they are), and the fact that his fiancee is beautiful but fleshed out at all as a character (and seems a little bitchy and vain, a symptom of the movie's inability to depict woman as anything other than bitches or naive strippers) make the machinations of said ticking clock a little less suspenseful and urgent, than, say, the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

So anyway... I'm not gonna write a review of a two year old movie that almost everyone on the planet has seen at this point. I'm gonna talk about it in terms of how it stacks up as a Las Vegas movie.

The Hangover sets its heroes loose on an adventure where many Vegas landmarks, ranging from swanky to seedy, are visited/ violated. Though the massive suite the characters check into at Caesars Palace is breathtakingly cool and features a view of The Strip that made me want to get rich enough to stay in such a place as soon as possible, the suite is also the setting where the images that most define the film (and The Hangover franchise as a whole) take place; in the morning after their first night in town, the boys find the suite torn to shreds, with cigars still smoldering in burned out couches, an inhuman number of beer cans strewn about, a chicken wandering around aimlessly, characters with missing teeth and pants, the unexplainable presence of an infant in a closet, and famously, a live tiger in the bathroom. This bombed out suite is what The Hangover is all about, as if the movie were a 2 hour version of the infamous What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas ad campaign launched nearly a decade ago by the city's tourism council (which is a pretty ballsy message for a tourism council, when one really thinks about it).

The boys' wake up in the apocalyptic suite, unable to remember what happened the night before or to locate their friend and the groom-to-be whose impending nuptials they're celebrating. The group's (mis)adventures take them to iconic Vegas locales like the Bellagio, Mike Tyson's house, a quickie wedding chapel (the fictional "Best Little Wedding Chapel," but clearly similar to places like The Strip's famous A Little White Chapel and Chapel of the Bells) where Ed Helms' dentist marries a stripper on a whim, while the movie's famously filthy photo montage features cameos from Vegas icon Wayne Newton yes-he's-still-alive-and-performing Carrot Top.

So how does The Hangover rate in terms of Las Vegas movies? The raunch-fest certainly shows off the "boys behaving badly" side of Vegas that's become the town's popular image (an image the town has been happy to cultivate). And while the gags in The Hangover are raunchy and R-rated, there is nothing particularly shocking or very inventive about the "wolf-pack's" hijimks in the end. The boys end up finding their missing friend and getting him back to LA in time for his wedding, while Bradley Cooper's cadish (or doucheish, depending on how you see him) everyman resumes his normal, married-with-children life after a weekend of "crazy" debauchery; this, is, after all, the very fantasy Vegas is selling in the end, isn't it? Guys can take a weekend off from their responsibilities, get "crunk" in ways that will become legendary to themselves and their friends (and probably boring to anyone else who has to hear their stories) before they return to their normal, passive, consumerist existence. In this fashion, The Hangover is actually kind of an honest depiction of a Las Vegas lost weekend and helps to explain the movie's universal appeal (despite the fact that it gets less funny as it goes on); we can all relate to the idea of weekend in Vegas with our own personal wolfpacks that allowed us to go feral (in our minds at least; in fact this kind of Vegas bad behavior is really an example of participating in controlled, safe and heavily advertised legal consumerism) for a few days before returning to our more boring lives. Though most of us, admittedly, will never discover Mike Tyson's tiger in our hotel suite after a weekend running with the wolves.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Vegas Be Ravin'

The Electric Daisy Carnival, the controversial yet wildly promoted corporate rave that was essentially run out of Los Angeles by concerned parents who may as well have been carrying torches pitchforks after a teenager died at last year's LA Coliseum addition a year ago, is coming to Las Vegas.

Unless you're a person who:

-can't accept that Electronica never lived up to the media's overheated declarations that it was "the music of the future"
-don't feel there's anything silly about an adult sucking on a pacifier
-think it's a good idea to take Ecstacy, a drug that is notorious for causing dehydration, in the nearly 120 degree desert heat...

...this might not be a great weekend to visit Las Vegas.

Last year saw over 100,000 fans of electronic dance music swarm into the coliseum. If you tried to book a room in town and found that normally mid-priced hotels had room rates approaching $700 a night, the massive EDC festival is the reason why. Vegas is going to be packed this weekend, and packed with people from a scene that I did not get when I was too young to partake in it and still don't really get now that I'm too old to partake in it.

That said, the controversy caused by the festival is maybe a little hysterical. It's another case of youth culture being frowned upon by nervous adults who can't remember that what they used to do for fun made their parents nervous, a cycle that's been going on since teenage velociraptors were told that they listened to devil music by their out of touch parents. Didn't anybody see the trailer for the remake of Footloose? Sure, it looks awful, but it's also proof that that story still has resonance (okay, I do find it hard to believe that there's anywhere in modern America that would "ban dancing," but you get my point). As much as the media wants to play the event up as a den of dangerously risky behavior, mostly these are just a bunch of kids who want to dance.

So I say, dance away in your goofy hats and costumes, enjoy your music where the number of "beats per minute," something that can be manipulated electronically, is considered impressive and where the star"performers" are dudes standing behind laptops.

If the organizers of the festival do their due diligence and have enough security on hand and don't gouge the kids too much for waters (which would be especially heinous, considering the elements involved in this fest), then the EDC will be a success. If not... well, there should be some harrowing headlines coming out of Vegas Monday morning.

Rave safely, kids. And remember to drink lots of fluids... it's gonna be hot all weekend.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Escape From Douchery, Part 6: Siegfried and Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat

Alright, don't laugh.

I know what you're thinking: how can a place endorsed by super-campy German magicians possibly be-non douchey? Especially when that place is called a "Secret Garden?"

I'll tell you why: because it's a place where you can drink cheap, giant beers and chill with dolphins.

Siegfried and Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at The Mirage is ostensibly a family-friendly attraction, designed as a place to take the kiddies on a lazy afternoon before dinner. But (as is the case with most Vegas-family attractions), the place has a full bar that serves massive beers... at better prices than most casino bars. If their policies haven't changed since my last visit, you can get refills of said massive beers for even cheaper.

The "Secret Garden" features a menagerie of big cats, with white tigers, panthers, white lions, and leopards hanging out in habitats in habitats designed to resemble their natural environments. While zoos featuring caged beasts can be a bummer (as Dr. Alan Grant once said, a T-Rex doesn't want to be fed in a cage, it "wants ot hunt,"), these are endangered animals that are well taken care of.

Then there's the dolphin habitat, which is basically a giant pool with real dolphins swimming around in it. Maybe the guy in "The Cove" is right and I'm just a sucker for the way we've portrayed the animals in "Flipper," but dolphins are totally awesome. Keeping these super-smart creatures in captivity does create moral conflicts that are hard for me to resolve, at least until I see one of them surface and look at me with its intelligent eyes... damn, those are awesome creatures. And I get to hang out with them while I drink cheap beer?

Tickets are $12 to enter SARSGADH, but just think of it as a (low for Vegas) cover charge to enter a club... but instead of dumb drunk girls (who aren't gonna let you make out with them anyway) and Jersey-Shore reject frat boys dancing to awful Black Eyed Peas tunes played a volumes loud enough to make you too stupid to realize how awful the songs truly are, you get dolphins and white tigers. That's a pretty good deal, in my book.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Midnight in The Paris, Las Vegas

Woody Allen's wonderful new film Midnight in Paris might be his most purely pleasurable work in a decade, and audiences seem to agree... the film is on track to become The Woodman's biggest hit since his 1986 Oscar winning classic, Hannah and Her Sisters.

I'm a major Woody Allen fanatic, and as an enthusiast I'm not as prepared to declare it his best of the decade as many other critics seem eager to do (I think Vicky Cristina Barcelona is probably a bit richer and deeper in character and theme, and Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are both amazeballs in it), but Midnight is an extremely satisfying return to light comedy, easily the funniest movie he's made since the 90's, with a loose and inventive feel, gorgeous photography from Darius Khondji, a wonderful supporting cast (which includes Adrien Brody, Kathy Bates, adorable muses Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard, and the human-genius Michael Sheen), a charmingly wide-eyed lead performance from Owen Wilson (fulfilling the mandatory "Woody Allen stand-in role" in such a uniquely Owen Wilson-ish way that it will remind you why that guy is such a uniquely lovable movie star), and best of all, many great gags that land fully and feel like throwbacks to Woody's early work in the 70's. All that, and the movie explores some interestingly philosophical ideas with the lightest of touches.

One of the miracles of marketing the film has been the fact that the trailers have not given away Midnight's main, lightly magical-realist conceit (one that recalls Woody's absolutely fantastic depression era fable, The Purple Rose of Cairo), and I don't want to be the one to ruin it for anyone who hasn't seen it yet. Suffice to say, Owen Wilson goes on a journey where he gets to indulge in a little bit romanticism for another era while eventually learning what a dangerous trap nostalgia can truly become.

Much as Wilson's restless hack screenwriter who dreams of becoming a greater artist spends his nights in the film wandering the streets of Paris and romanticizing a time when Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Picasso rubbed elbows in decadent salons, I've often indulged in similar flights of fancy in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

I've day-dreamed about coming to Hollywood during the movie industry's golden age and downing a few martinis with Orson Welles and Humphrey Bogart, or living in 70's LA, when intensely passionate artists with diverse voices like Scorsese, DePalma, Bogdonavitch, Malick, Coppola and Spielberg shook up the foundation of the medium with every new film.

More than once, I've fantasized about visiting the Las Vegas of The Rat Pack and Bugsy Segal, where one could indulge in truly Sinful decadence on a weekend that would truly stay in Vegas because that generation really knew what a guy's code actually meant. I've imagined seeing Sinatra take the stage at The Sands, riffing with his famous pals while starlets from LA sat in the front row, waiting for Frank to pick them for the night.

My thoughts have wandered to visions of a Hollywood Blvd before the ugly monstrosity of the Hollywood and Highland mall. I've looked up at the giant resorts in Sin City and in a weird reversal of Wilson's dilemma, imagined a Strip devoid Paris (albeit a very fake one). I've often mourned (and have written about) the loss of the older resorts that, to my mind, constitute a more "authentic" versions of Vegas.

But that's all silly-romanticism. If I was in the LA of Welles and Bogart, I would never actually be able to keep up with the pace that those guys drank. If I was in Bugsy and Frank's Vegas, I'd probably get my ass kicked by a quick to anger mob-enforcer who thought I was too much of a wise-ass. Plus, I wouldn't be able to Tweet, and where would that leave me?

The passage of time inevitably leads us to feel that past eras were better than our own; everyone with a brain believes thinks the present is filled with fools who lacked the spark, vision, and creativity of previous, already canonized generations. While it's hard for me to argue against the idea that most people my age are cynical yet un-engaged hipsters who are more focused on projecting cool personal brands than making a better world, everyone in every time with intelligence felt a similar disgust about their contemporaries. While I've often felt that my generation is addicted to nostalgia, Woody is suggesting that every generation has indulged in the same romantic looking back instead of forward (albeit without the aid of YouTube to help them easily access every episode of Gummi Bears and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). I think Midnight in Paris, beyond it's feather-weight watchability, terrific performances, and extremely funny and playful screenplay, is resonating with audiences because everyone can relate to Wilson's feelings that if only they'd been born in another time, people would truly understand them.

So I'll just have to walk the streets of Faux-Paris, enjoy today for the modern miracles we sometimes take for granted (like devices that can carry every song you've ever loved in your pocket, the ability to cross oceans in a matter of hours, and, yes, Twitter), while still maintaining my right to indulge in wistful longing to see what my favorite cities were like in eras that are not my own. And I can take extra comfort in the fact that one day, young Americans who will have been forced to survive the traumas of the inevitably approaching apocalypse will look back on 2011 and think that we all had it pretty damn good, what with our crazy recreations of Paris, our over-blown Hollywood malls and our almost total lack of flesh-craving bio-zombies.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Escape From Douchery, Part 5: Red Square

I promised that I'd eventually get around to recommending cool places on The Strip where the air isn't thick with the smell of Axe Body Spray, but thus far I've focused mainly on Downtown Vegas in my inconsistently ongoing escape from douchery series. And while Downtown is going through something of a hipster renaissance these days, when I started an entire blog about how much I love Vegas in the face of snobbish scenesters who think the town is strictly for the same dumb people who make Fast and the Furious movies into hits (okay, I kinda love the Fast and the Furious movies as well), I knew I'd have to eventually deal with the fact that The Strip is Vegas and Vegas is The Strip. To avoid writing about anything on Las Vegas Blvd. would be a mistake born of a fear that the legions of my loyal readers would judge me and I'd immediately lose credibility if I admitted to liking something too lame and corporate in the middle of a street that stands as a metaphor for the runaway capitalistic excess that defines American culture.

But the truth is I do love The Las Vegas Strip. It's huge and flashy and stupid, but sometimes huge and flashy and stupid can be fun, especially if you put down your Noam Chomsky book and just let yourself flow along with the tao of dumb. And even if you want to intellectualize it, I think there is something interesting and deeply metaphorical about the massive fake empires of fakery built along The Strip that says something about America and our culture and values, for better or worse.

No place I can think of embodies that stupidity and excess more boldly and ironically than Red Square at Mandalay Bay. With a massive, headless Lenin statue greeting you at the entrance and kitschy commie propaganda posters lining the walls, this Russian themed vodka bar, lounge and restaurant in the middle of a city that completely symbolizes the runaway excess of capitalist values is a place with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, a watering hole where irony runs so deep that even the most indie-credible hipsters in Brooklyn and Austin can only bow their heads in awe and respect.

Sure, it glibly flips complicated recent history into a jokey bar theme in a way that may potentially infuriate crusty old KGB loyalists, but the extreme commitment to the theme is what makes Red Square so much fun. You could write a college thesis paper about post-modern culture and the devaluation of historical symbology and the metaphorical irony of a communist Russian themed bar on The Las Vegas Strip, but then you'd just be another grad school jerk who should be writing their thesis on something more important anyway.

Red Square is as well themed as a Disneyland ride, except the theme is an anti-capitalist society in which free thinking was discouraged and you'd never have the freedom to indulge in the kind of excessive reveling that takes place in the bar, which is what makes Red Square simply awesome. Plus, the bar features a great selection of vodkas, all chilled to perfection. So take off your thinking Ushankas and just enjoy the extreme irony of enjoying a drink in a Las Vegas bar decorated with hammer and sickle flags and communist propaganda.