Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas in Las Vegas

I'm a Jewish dude, but Christmas in Vegas is a catchier headline than Holidays in Vegas. I also don't want to be accused of waging a war on Christmas by Bill O'Reilly (because that wily bastard is on to us... the truth is that the Jews, Atheists, Agnostics, Muslims, Secular Humanists, and Jehova's Witnesses have all indeed come together to wage an all out secret war on Christmas. We meet in dark basement in bad parts of town in the twilight hours, and it turns out those Fox News Anchors most people find so silly are the only journalists crusading for the truth).

Also, the title will get picked up easier by Google and help in my quest to collect more followers whose loyal readership I can eventually convert into extremely lucrative monetary gain.

Las Vegas does not come to mind when one thinks of holiday destinations. When conjuring images of a nice holiday, one usually imagines huddling by a fire as snow piles outside in a idyllic Vermont cabin while the family opens presents under a glowing tree as Bing Crosby gently sings on the radio. I've never had this experience (I have lived in California my entire life and, as I previously stated, am very much Jew) but somehow this is the image that comes to mind when I imagine the holidays. 

Images not usually associated with dreams of Christmas morn' include blindingly bright desert sun reflected off a crazy jungle of glass edifices mimicking famous international landmarks packed together along one long street, where people sit in casinos gambling away their savings, day drinking and contemplating hitting bottom with one of the hookers trolling the gaming floors.

So, yes, Las Vegas doesn't exactly scream "Christmas spirit" in a stereotypical way, but it's actually a fun place to spend the holidays if you're not married to the Normal Rockwell version... and here's why:

-The Food: Even if you think your mother (bless her heart) is your favorite cook, be honest: she's got nothing on the kitchen skills of Thomas Keller, Hubert Keller, Julian Serrano, Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Pierre Gagnaire, Mario Batali, Charlie Palmer, Tom Colicchio, or the countless other master chefs who own signature restaurants in Las Vegas. Enjoy an epic meal at one of the many foodie-centric fine dining restaurants on The Strip that will be so amazing your family will be too busy stuffing their faces to fight about your deadbeat brother's future or why your closeted uncle isn't married yet.

-The Whole City Lights Up Like a Christmas Tree (Even More than Usual): New York's famous Rockefeller Center Tree has got nothing on the Las Vegas skyline, which is lit up like a Christmas Tree 365 days a year. But particularly for Christmas, Vegas does it up. Check out the decked out for the season Botanical Gardens and The Fountain Show set to Christmas tunes at The Bellagio, the Christmas themeing on The Fremont Street Experience, the Scuba Diving Santa at The Silverton Casino Aquarium, the eco-friendly Winter Lights Festival (a beautiful display of green friendly LED lights powered by solar energy) at Springs Preserve, the ice rink at The Grand Canals in The Venetian, the 20 foot tall snow covered trees at The Palazzo, the massive LED lit tree at Caesars, and Christmas music piped in everywhere you turn. Maybe that last part is not appealing to you, but that's pretty much par for the course starting after Thanksgiving in any public space. Don't be a Grinch. Get in the spirit. (Bonus note... I got a Groupon offer for Horse-Drawn Chrismas Caroling in Vegas. Does this mean you participate in the Caroling or do you watch people do it? And do they take the horse drawn carriage onto The Strip? Because that just seems so awesomely stupid that I almost made it its own bullet point.)

-Everything's Open: Almost every business, except for bars, movie theaters and Chinese restaurants (which are all you really need in the end, I know) close on Christmas day in most cities, even major metropoli (proper plural form of metropolis? Probably not, but I like it) like Los Angeles. But not in Vegas... the casinos never close their doors for anything short of a controlled demolition, and Christmas day is no exception. Sure everyone enjoys spending the morning opening presents with their family, but aren't you ready to go out and do something by noon? We non-XMas celebrating heathens tend to get bored when there is nothing to do in the outside world, and Vegas negates that problem by keeping their 24 hour party rocking 365 days a year, even on Jesus's birthday.

 -Hotels are Cheap: The smoking wreckage known as the American economy has hit Vegas particularly hard, but that's something you can take advantage of financially (just like the greedy Wall Streeters who caused the initial recession, you know what I mean, man? #Occupy!) by booking a hotel room at a low rate for the Christmas weekend. Take your pick of some of the nicest hotels on The Strip for low nightly rates... and call the hotels directly to see if you can haggle them down to get a good deal on what will be an otherwise un-occopied (#Occupy!) room for less (yes, that advice comes directly from the stereotypical Jewish side of me).

-It'll Make for a Good Story: Why live your life by cliches when you can have a unique experience? Las Vegas is not the typical place to spend Christmas, but you're an individual damnit! Don't be another preditable statistic who becomes part of the faceless zombie masses... go have a Christmas adventure filled with sexy girls in skimpy Santa outfits, gambling, binge-drinking, sad eyed hookers working on a holiday, over-priced buffets, and more in the City of Sin.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Vegas Movies: Casino

Martin Scorsese's Casino is, without a doubt, the gold standard for Las Vegas movies.

Scorsese reassembled much of his Goodfellas team, including writer Nicholas Pileggi and actors Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, to tell a sprawling tale of the days when the mob ran Las Vegas.

I can review Casino from a film fanatic's perspective, talking about Scorsese's bravura camera-work, the excellent performances, the brilliant use of multiple narrators, the electrifying and high paced storytelling, the eclectic soundtrack, the shocking use of violence, or so many more things. But this, again, is a Vegas-related blog and I'm going to look at the film as a piece of work about the city. And as a Vegas movie, Casino completely nails it in every way imaginable.

Casino, like many Scorsese movies set in New York, turns the city its set in into a main character. That said, the movie takes place in a Las Vegas that doesn't exist anymore, a wild-west city run by the mafia. Today, Sin City is owned by massive corporations and all of the "bad behavior" one indulges in on a weekend getaway there is much safe, controlled and planned.

But Scorsese's Las Vegas is truly a dangerous place, a city run by gangsters who commit murder in order to protect their money. Scorsese dazzlingly shows us how the mob skimmed money off of the top of the casino's profits while violently ensuring that the customers weren't cheating them out of money on the gaming floor. Scorsese's endlessly moving, gliding, dipping, and dodging camera explores every corner of the bustling casino, fluidly moving from the gamblers on the floor to the backrooms where the money is counted, to the security rooms where experts keep their eyes on potential cheaters to the board room where the casino bosses operate in extraordinary sequences that capture the humming energy of Las Vegas better than any movie I can think of.

Casino also does a bangup job of showing life behind the scenes in Sin City, as DeNiro's Sam "Ace" Rothstein falls in love with a troubled yet beautiful hustler played by Sharon Stone, who proceeds to make his life miserable with her fast-living use of drugs and hard-alcohol. The film also depicts Vegas as a weird place for second-rate entertainers who never made it and has-been icons who are well past their prime, as DeNiro's Rothstein ends up hosting a hilariously cheesy talk show.

But the most fascinating part of the film is the way it depicts how Vegas evolved from a truly corrupt, dangerous, and seedy gangster's paradise into a slick corporate city, a Disneyland for adults (where you may believe you're engaging in truly unruly behavior but you're just as much on a safe and planned out track as guests riding Pirates of the Caribbean). Maybe it's a better place to take the kids for a weekend (whereas Scorsese's Las Vegas was no place to imagine taking your family), but some unique character has been a lost as the city has evolved from a scuzzy gambling town in the middle of the desert to a slick city made up of corporate palaces built to resemble landmarks from all over the world. Marty Scorsese is too smart a filmmaker to glorify the mob; he's seen too many lives ruined by organized crime to actually romanticize it without showing the awful side of a life of crime. But there is a bit of sadness in the final sequence as DeNiro narrates what's become of Sin City today in a brilliantly edited montage that was put together in 1995 but feels more relevant today than ever.

Scorsese is one of the most celebrated New York directors of all time, and he uses all of his formidable skills in depicting the beating heart of a city to tell the epic Las Vegas tale to end them all.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Viva Elvis is Dead! Long Live The King!

Cirque Du Soleil's Viva Elvis, which has been hobbling along at The Aria since the futuristic resort opened, will close next year. It's a very rare misstep for the The Cirque Industrial Complex, which basically has a monopoly on the Vegas entertainment landscape.

Though The King has long been associated with Las Vegas after spending the twilight of his career performing at The Hilton, and despite the fact that the town has no shortage of Elvis impersonators, the Americana-centric imagery associated with Elvis was always a strange fit with the artsy French circus. While the beautiful melodies and psychedelic tunes of The Beatles meshed perfectly with Cirque's visuals in LOVE, trying to repeat the hugely successful formula with Elvis was one of the only missteps that Cirque has ever made in Vegas (at least financially... say what you will about Criss Angel Believe, but that show has been running for more than three years).

Cirque will have to come up with a new show to replace Viva Elvis at Aria, and I've taken the liberty of compiling a list of totally unrealistic possible replacements for their first Vegas flop:

Morissey's There is a Light That Never Goes Out Over Las Vegas by Cirque Du Soleil: The British indie rock icon is a much more natural fit for Cirque than Elvis, with his affinity for the dramatic and the morbid. Imagine a chorus of acrobats in skeleton costumes choreographed to the sounds of "Cemetery Gates" or the synchronized British school scene that could accompany "The Headmaster Ritual." Sure, you might argue that a cult pop star who never had a number one hit in the United States probably doesn't have a better shot at supporting a Cirque show than one of the most well known American icons of all time, but Morrissey is one of my favorite humans so I choose to ignore that arugement.

Animal Collective's Did You See the Words by Cirque Soleil: Cirque could take their journey into psychedelia even further if they based a show around the art rock collective's strange, beautiful, and just this side of accessible tunes. Sure, your grandmother (or mother or father or even your non-hipster siblings) have never heard of Animal Collective, but just tell them that there's a Panda Bear in the band.

Queen's Princes of the Universe by Cirque du Soleil: Sure, there's already a jukebox musical about Queen's music magically freeing a soul-deadened populace in a dystopian future, but Cirque could create a show based around the music the band did for the Highlander soundtrack. Cirque has already had success with an epic sword and sorcery tale in Ka, so this could be a natural for them. In fact, the idea is so awesome that I'm regretting posting it to the internet instead of pitching it directly to Cirque and collecting millions of dollars.

Kanye West's Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Presented by Cirque du Soleil- The genre shifting hip hop superstar already puts on epically over the top concerts and mounts visually spectacular videos, so framing his ambitious music with Cirque visuals would be a natural fit. Plus there's no town better suited to containing Kanye's massive ego than Las Vegas. 

Meatloaf's Bat out of Hell by Cirque du Soleil: You all know this is a good idea. I don't even need to explain why.