Monday, November 28, 2011

Vegas Movies: Lucky You

Lucky You could have been one of the great Las Vegas movies, but for reasons that remain unclear, it's craps out.

Director Curtis Hanson is one of those rare filmmakers who really makes the city his films are set in a main character. In his best work, like 8 Mile, Wonder Boys, and the neo-noir masterpiece LA Confidential, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and 1950s Los Angeles come to vivid life. A Curtis Hanson film set in Las Vegas had endless potential, but Lucky You, the story of an irresponsible gambler who makes his living at the poker table dealing with daddy issues, fizzled both critically and commercially.

Since this is a Vegas-themed blog (and not a source for incisive film criticism), I won't bore you with a long review. The movie was a box office disaster, mostly because the studio released it with little to no fanfare. They must have known they had a stinker on their hands, as the chemistry between Eric Bana (who is for some reason always cast as a humorless brooder even though he was a comedian in Australia and he practically explodes off the screen with manic and angry charisma in Chopper, the movie that  brought him to Hollywood's attention) and naive cocktail waitress Drew Barrymore is non-existent, the story has been told 10,000 times before, and screen legend Robert Duval (playing Bana's gruff poker-legend father) seems to be completely checked out. More than anything, the movie just feels completely lifeless, as Hanson fails to capture the crazy kinetic flashy energy of modern day Sin City.

That failure, to me, is the greatest disappointment of the film. It would be hard for me to get excited about a poker movie under most circumstances, but Curtis Hanson telling the story of an up and down on his luck Vegas-based poker player sounded rich with potential. While Hanson is semi-successful at depicting life away from The Strip for Bana, who lives in a small unfurnished home he rarely visits, he does very little to make Las Vegas come alive in ways comparable to how he treated other great cities he's depicted in his films. Hanson clearly wanted to capture Vegas in an lived-in and accurate manner, shooting on location for every scene (save for the scenes in The Bellagio Poker Room, which are shot in a meticulously detailed recreation on a sound-stage designed to reflect what it look like before its mid-Aughts redesign, because for some reason the movie is a period piece that takes place in the ancient times of 2003, even though the film was released in 2007 after spending a year on the shelf).

In one memorable scene, Bana tries to borrow money from Robert Downey Jr. (bringing a welcome jolt of energy in a pre-Iron Man cameo that reminds you that he used to be an interesting character actor not so long ago) as a smooth-talking 1-900 number operator working multiple phone lines and conning callers out of their money by the minute as he plays the part of lawyer, board-certified psychologist, and contract-specialist, all from an empty casino bar. The brief scene is a glimpse at the unique Vegas movie that might have been, as is the sequence when Bana's Huck (I know, I know, that name, but in co-screenwriters Hanson and Eric Roth's defense, they named him after a real famous poker player) starts with a tiny bit of cash and spends the evening slowly "chipping up" until he's got thousands of dollars in winnings from unsuspecting gamblers in his pocket before losing it all in a risky bet (which illustrates his character flaw of playing poker too recklessly and living his life with his cards too close to his chest, or something out of screenwriting 101) is another glimmer of what could have been.

But too much of the movie feels one step removed from the heartbeat of the city, as Bana romances Barrymore on top of a parking lot or in empty casinos during times that they would be bustling with activity, even during the post recession downturn of the city. I don't know if it's a function of the fact that shooting in a city that's open and crowded 24/7 is nearly impossible, but Hanson's Vegas is devoid of people, color and energy, which is just wrong for a city that glows and flashes in blinding neon (with one light so bright it can be seen from friggin' space). Hanson also fails to explore some of the stranger and lesser known corners of Vegas, while the main characters are charmless, boring, and completely standard, as the Oscar nominated director misses a great opportunity to capture one of the most photographed cities in the world in new and exciting ways or to reveal the intricate quirks of the people who actually live there.

Perhaps it's a function of Hanson exploring a sadder, seedier, and less flashy side of the town than the vision that those "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" ads attempt to depict, but there's a dismal lack of energy to Lucky You that drains the city of life and color. It's a strange letdown for a filmmaker who captured the shimmering and seductive glow of 1950's Hollywood so perfectly in LA Confidential. Curtis Hanson is one of the most undervalued filmmakers working in Hollywood, and setting is usually as important to his films as anything else. The authentic sense of place he's captured in most of his films is comparable to the work of a master of the metropolitan such as Woody Allen, but for some curious reason, Curtis Hanson just wasn't able to capture the unique and bizarre buzz of Sin City.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How Morrissey Ruined Thanksgiving

This is going to be a sad tale. A tale sad enough to inspire a classically brooding yet witty Morrissey song.

The former frontman of The Smiths is basically my favorite human being, (or at least in the top three, along with Woody Allen, and, I dunno, Abraham Lincoln). He's one of those polarizing pop music figures who a lot of people hate or at least consider irrelevant since his legendary band split up, an opinion that renders the people who harbor it irrelevant in my mind.

One of the most witty lyricists to ever live, a larger than life icon who never got as famous with the mainstream as the size of his persona, a man critics like to paint into a corner for his depressive lyrics, an artist under-appreciated for his wit and originality, a celebrity who is cagey about his sexuality mostly because coming out of the closet would make him more normal and less of mysterious weirdo (who used to claim to be celibate and writes of romantic misery better than anyone), an interview subject second to none, a periodically controversial fire-starter, a celebrity legendarily unwilling to give up on decades old grudges, a musician passionately loyal to his current band, an advocate of animal rights, an over-sharer who is bluntly honest while never actually revealing himself, and pretty much a completely perfect human being, Morrissey is one of those people you either get or don't get, and if you don't get him, he doesn't really care.

And now Morrissey is performing in both LA and Las Vegas just as I'm leaving for The Bay Area for ther Thanksgiving holiday, then he heads up to Oakland right after I come back to LA. Is he punishing me for the obscene amounts of turkey meat I plan on gorging myself on over the traditional holiday meal? Is he once again waving off traditional American iconography with his strangely scheduled performances (America is not the world, afterall)? Or perhaps I'm just taking the entire thing too seriously and melodramatically?

As I'm faced with the choice between family and Morrissey, it's not as easy a decision as it should be if I were a slightly better person (in a way that would break my poor mother's heart). Yet I will, I must, make the right choice and drive up North to the Bay Area tomorrow, doing my best to stay ahead of the holiday traffic and try not to look back over my shoulder as I realize I'm missing Moz at his intimate Hollywood show.. for looking back will only turn me into a pillar of salt. Or cause a car accident on a two lane road where people often drive 100 MPH ("and if a double-decker bus/ crashes into us...").

To try and wrap this rambling post into something thematically coherent, I'm going to implore any readers who are in the Las Vegas metropolitan area this weekend to check out Morrissey's show at The Cosmpolitan (a resort with an aspirationaly artsy vibe that's it the perfect venue for the hyper literate, Oscar Wilde loving singer). If his setlists from recent European and early American tour shows are any indication, the singer is pulling out a whole lot of old Smiths classics he hasn't played in years (I Want the One I Can't Have! Still Ill! I Know it's Over!) and solo-years deep cuts (Speedway!!! Speedway!!! Speedway!!!) that will make for a perfect night out in Vegas, for casual and obsessive fans alike.

Just think of the seasoned crooner as a (probably) gay and (most definitely) British Sinatra and get yourself down to The Cosmo for what is sure to be Sin City's hipster event of the season.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Escape From Douchery, Part 9: Peppermill's Fireside Lounge

The Peppermill is an old-school Vegas restaurant that's still a local's favorite, serving up affordable yet tasty steaks, burgers, and other basics. But the real reason to visit the classic restaurant is to enjoy the cozy charms of Peppermill's Fireside Lounge, a great retro hang that mixes the kitschy with the romantic so perfectly that it's been described as one of America's ten best makeout bars by Nerve Magazine.

This off-Strip lounge has been open since the 70's, and features plush booths and mirrors all over the walls, and pink and purple lighting throughout. Try your best to score a seat around the sunken firepit to maximize the experience, and try not to oggle the waitresses in their tight black skirts slit to the thigh. Order your date one of the lounge's famously sweet and strong drinks and enjoy the mood.

On the venue's ancient (in web 2.0 terms) website, the owners describe the place as the first Vegas "ultra-lounge," and though it doesn't really resemble the slick corporate spots for imbibing overpriced beverages set to trendy beats that fill up every casino on The Strip, the place was a bit of trailblazer that's survived through four decades and has been featured in films both classy (Marty Scorsese's "Casino") and cheesy ("Showgirls).

I'll admit to spend a little time sipping on frou frou drinks and necking with my ex back in the day at the Fireside Lounge. The place is kinda cheesy, but in a way that's fun, and despite the kitsch-factor, or maybe because of it, it is kind of an intimate and sexy place. So if you really want to take part in a public makeout session in Vegas, skip the ultra lounges in the mega-resorts and head to the off Strip Peppermill's Fireside Lounge.  Something about the place is just perfect, especially if you dig on that old school Vegas vibe I love so much.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Will the Spirit of The Sahara Fade as it Transforms into a Hip Boutique?

The Sahara is dead; long live The SLS Las Vegas.

The Rat Pack era resort shuttered its doors for the last time earlier this year, selling off a ton of memorabilia in packed to the gills auctions, and now Vegas Chatter, one of my favorite Vegas-centric blogs, has been reporting on property owner Sam Nazarian's plans to renovate the property. The nightlife impresario (doesn't that seem like a made up job in a movie where he learns to love by the third act?), who runs twelve clubs in Los Angeles (including Hyde, Colony, and Industry... and yes, venue names like that do make my skin crawl) through his SBE hospitality group, has grand plans for the old-school Sahara property.

The outdated Sahara will become The SLS Las Vegas, a sister-property to the ultra chic boutique SLS Beverly Hills. The redesign of the resort will be spearheaded by "highly influential guy who designs stuff," Phillipe Starck (I know, I'm thinking the same thing about some of the names in this post, and no I didn't make them up... but this Starck-bro knows what he's doing. Check out his Wikipedia page), while two SBE meagclubs will open in the property. The NASCAR roller coaster in front of the property will be knocked down in favor of a sleek beer garden (okay, that's an idea I can get behind).

The economy makes it impossible it cost prohibitive for Nazarian to knock down the entire property, so it seems that The SLS Las Vegas will be built out of a renovated Sahara. The Beverly Hills property is about as modern as you can get, but if Nazarian and Starck are smart about integrating the classic Rat Pack vibe of the old resort into and sexy property, I actually have high hopes for the new resort.

Clearly, Nazarian is gunning for the affluent tastemaking party-goers who were the main demographic for the owners of The Cosmopolitan, but if the designers can smartly blend the old school into their modern and sleek design, they might create something truly unique and special... which they're going to need to do in order to get people to party on the North end of The Strip, which has become a dead zone once you get past The Wynn and Encore in recent years (as construction on new resorts has halted while Circus Circus... can't stop being Circus Circus).

I'm still sad that we lost another classic resort when Nazarian closed The Sahara a few months ago, but he has a chance to keep the spirit of the old-school yet admittedly run down resort alive if he's smart enough to meld together the classic and sexy new sensibilities into something that stands out from The Cosmpolitan, things could get very interesting on the North Strip when The SLS Las Vegas opens in 2014.