Monday, December 17, 2012

Why Doesn't Downtown Have A Movie Theater?

I spent as much of what turned out to be a very busy weekend as I could tuning in to the live stream of epically awesome non-profit movie lover temple Cinefamily's eclectic 24 hour telethon. If you're unfamiliar with Cinefamily, they're a cinematheque with a fantastically diverse programming schedule that has featured everything from a John Cassavetes retrospective to obscure Czech New Wave gems to Muppet movie sing-alongs, not to mention a good dose of midnight cult movies that draw out drunken crowds whooping and hollering as Patrick Swayze tears out the throats of of evil red necks.

This year's telethon launched with superstar and all around awesome dude Robert Downey Jr. pledging to cover the cost of a new digital projector and sound system, ended with a potluck lunch hosted by Jason Schwartzman where head Cinefamily guru and the Rushmore star discussed movies that scared them as children, and featured interviews with Devo frontman/ film composer Mark Mothersbaugh, Parks and Recreation's invaluable Nick Offerman, and the creators of cult kid's show The Adventures of Pete and Pete, as well as a live scoring session by indie darlings Yacht, comedy from meta-insult slinger Neil Hamburger, and a spoon-bending class hosted by Hadrian's mom at 4:30 in the morning. The telethon brought in tens of thousands of dollars in donations that will go to much needed and richly deserved upgrades for the place, located in the historic Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax. The wide-ranging list of guests who dropped in to the theater gives you an idea of just how insanely eclectic and ambitious their programming is week in and week out, and the fundraiser willl help them continue to do what they're doing. The telethon is over, but they're continuing to raise money through a Kickstarter campaign, to which you can still make a donation until Jan. 2.

All of this got me thinking about the movie-going experience in Las Vegas, and specifically in Downtown Las Vegas. Currently, the neighborhood is pretty much void of theaters in general. For people looking to see The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, it's an easy trip to The Strip or The Palms, both of which feature conventional multiplexes. But the Las Vegas audience for indie cinema is a bit under-served, which is something that probably should be rectified if plans for Downtown Las Vegas to evolve into a smart, creative, and young population are to come true.

There isn't really an arthouse theater of any kind to speak of in the area. Theater 7 is a small and awesome little art gallery and performance space that also does screenings of cult movies and anime, but they don't really have the space or capacity to run a deep retrospective (like the epic Passolini festival  unfolding at MOMA in NY at the moment) or to show newer art films like Leos Carax's thrillingly beautiful, sad, hilarious, and wholly mysterious Holy Motors (one of my absolute favorite films of 2012). The question is, has Dowtown's population grown enough to support a theater that would show such films?

Currently, enough young professionals with spending money are pouring into Downtown that a theater showing current Hollywood hits and mainstream "mindie" films like Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult, or (basically any Jason Reitman movie) could absolutely thrive. But could a theater such as Cinefamily or Austin's legendary Alamo Drafthouse (currently expanding its reach to New York and San Francisco, with plans to set up shop in LA as soon as they can find the right venue), which both mix in plenty of more esoteric fare (such as foreign, cult, and more challenging than the work of Jason Reitman indie flicks) find its footing in DTLV? I think the answer is a "maybe," but it would take an enthusiastic curator to pull it off.

Indie film is struggling lately, even in markets where people theoretically love film. The Laemmle Sunset 5, a cornerstone of my indie movie viewing when I moved to LA for film school, recently shut down (but was replaced by a new Sundance Cinemas, which fully renovated the place), which led to a controversial LA Weekly cover story about the "state of the art-house" the city. It was a decent article that railed against the fact that people in a town where the movies are made wouldn't go see more challenging fare that played at The Sunset 5 such as the Greek incest-ridden dark comedy psychodrama, Dogtooth, while pointing out that the movie did very good business in New York. But then the article went on to note that Dogtooth did quite well when it was screened at Cinefamily. And I think that's precisely where Longworth kind of missed the point.

Cinefamily has done a magnificent job of helping audiences find strange and wonderful films such as Dogtooth or Holy Motors discover enthusiastic audiences through their robust web and social media presence, which goes a long way to explaining why a movie they choose to screen is worth seeing for people who don't know much about it initially. They also do an excellent job at their screenings of convincing people why they should come back to see upcoming films, with Cinefamily's head nerd Belove often on hand to introduce the movies and talk about future shows personally. They also cut their own trailers and promos for their eclectic programming, such as their homemade spots for the effervescent Czech New Wave film Daisies and First Blood (the very first and decidedly darker Rambo movie, which they'll be showing for a week to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its release). If watching those two trailers doesn't give you an idea of just how eclectic Cinefamily's programming is, I don't know what will.

Similarly, the wonderful New Beverly Cinema, a rep-house where double features of classic films still only costs $7 to attend (which was recently saved from extinction by Quentin Tarantino) draws decent crowds to movies from decades past with good use of Twitter, their website, and old fashioned calendar print-outs that inform film-lovers of their upcoming slates. The American Cinematheque at The Egyptian in Hollywood and Aero in Santa Monica has a very ambitious slate every month of retrospectives, major new films, and documentaries, and more, and they also do good business by keeping audiences informed through email lists, their website, social media, and calendars that can be picked up at many venues all over the city. A recent screening of Barry Lyndon at LACMA (which has an incredibly in-depth Stanley Kubrick exhibit running through June 2013 and has shown his entire filmography in conjunction) sold out despite the fact that it's a period piece made in the 70's and is often considered Kubrick's "slowest" film (which is pure balderdash, as the movie is secretly a hilarious comedy that clips along at a nice pace despite its over 3 hour length, which includes an intermission, and also happens to be one of the most purely beautiful films ever committed to celluloid), something they achieved through similar means of getting their message out to the people.

My point is that, even in LA, where people make films, there needs to be helpful curation to coax audiences out of their homes and get their butts into theater seats. To me, Cinefamily is the greatest example of how to successfully pull audiences in to adventurous cinematic programming, but The New Bev, American Cinematheque, and LACMA are all proving it can be done as well. And Laemmle, the company that had to shut down the historic West Hollywood Sunset 5, is doing just fine in other parts of the city. They recently opened a new theater in North Hollywood and are reopening their renovated Laemmle Royal this week in West LA. And the Sundance Cinemas, which replaced the Sunset 5, are doing decent business after the old and out of date theater it replaced was upgraded. So while getting audiences to see indie, foreign, cult, documentary, and generally esoteric cinema isn't easy in an age of constant distractions from the internet and television shows that are nearly as good as most movies, there is an audience for those works that can be drawn out out their hovels for a unique cinematic experience. It's not that the audience isn't there for these films, it's that someone needs to guide their seats into the butts better than the owners of the defunct version of The Sunset 5 were doing by its last days.

All of which does not answer the question whether a place like Cinefamily can thrive in a city like Las Vegas. because it's unclear whether the audience is there... yet. But as Tony Hsieh's master-plan continues to gain steam, with a recent splashy NYTimes profile that argues he's bringing "Brooklyn to Vegas" adding to the mounting evidence that his crazy goal of turning Downtown into a livable and creative playground for smart entrepreneurs is actually working, then if the audience isn't quite there yet, they will be soon. Hseih recently gave $1 million to Venture for America, which places young and creative college graduates in under-served communities like Las Vegas to encourage entrepreneurship. This is the kind of thing that will keep driving the young, creative, talented, and curious to continue moving into the area... and that audience will be hungry for cool and interesting things to do in their new city beyond Sin City's most famous pastimes, gambling and drinking. Which means a cool and adventurous Cinematheque might have an enthusiastic audience sooner than later... particularly if the audience is informed and drawn in by an even more enthusiastic curator who mixes the programming just right with the kind of midnight cult stuff everybody enjoys along with more adventurous fare people might not have checked out otherwise. Imagine screenings at the theater that end with gatherings at Commonwealth or The Downtown Cocktail Room, where like-minded cinephiles can discuss Fellini or Bergman films over delicious themed cocktails, or argue passionately about the latest controversial works from provocateurs like Von Trier or Haneke. It's the kind of thing that works in cities like LA, New York, Austin, San Francisco, or Portland... but if Las Vegas, and particularly the Downtown neighborhood truly hopes to grow into a city comparable to those hip metropolises, then an eclectic Cinematheque can and should thrive there.

This was a long, rambling article, but it's something I'm passionate about. Tony Hseih is looking to create a real community people can be proud to call home in Downtown Las Vegas, and there are very few communal events that can be more magical than a truly special film screening. Perhaps Mr. Hseih and I should talk about opening a Cinematheque (or a SinCitymatheque) in the Fremont East District? Because Las Vegans should be able to see Holy Motors just as easily as The Hobbit.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Escape from Douchebaggery, Part 34: Backstage Bar and Billiards Opens

The Fremont East block in Downtown Las Vegas continues to add idiosyncratic watering holes, eateries, and businesses. In addition to the promising spots opening in the near future as well as the recently birthed and totally awesome Commonwealth, the 'hood now boasts a rock bar meets pool hall meets sports bar hybrid, The Backstage Bar and Billiards (or The Triple B as locals have already taken to calling it).

Owners of the bar include DJs who spun for House of Pain and Limp Bizkit, and while a connection to Fred Durst's vile 90's rap rock atrocity is enough to make anyone wary, they've pulled off something pretty cool here and filled in a niche that the neighborhood sorely needed.

If you're looking to catch some games or shoot some pool, now Downtown has a high quality option for partaking in such dude-friendly activities that's far enough away from The Strip that you'll most likely be able to avoid the frattier elements who will probably stick to the big sports bars in New York New York and The Palazzo. The Triple B also does a great job setting itself apart from the more corporate mega-sports bars because of its rock 'n' roll attitude.

The place has an admirably and intentionally scuzzy partied out rock star vibe to it, helped along greatly by the fact that the bar, the tables, and the stools you sit on are made from re-purposed Anvil Cases, those durable boxes that bands use to haul their gear around the country. The place is decorated with blacklight concert posters that lend the place a very 70's vibe, as well as bookcases stacked with vinyl behind the DJ booth. DJ's are often on hand to spin hard-rock hits for an energetic crowd on the dance floor, and even though one of those DJ's was in the worst band ever in history, he was actually spinning some good stuff when I was there.

Prices aren't too bad, and the beer list is decent, with a few tasty Craft and Imported options available on tap. Their mixed drinks seemed to be a little cheaper than the ones they pour at Commonwealth and The Downtown Cocktail Room, but this is not a fancy-pants craft-Cocktail place so that makes sense (the extra few bucks at those places is worth it for the crazy concoctions that the mixologists put into them).

The other thing that excites me about The Triple B is the live music venue attached to the place set to open sometime next year, The Fremont Country Club. A decadent rock club that promises to offer great acts playing in a space that co-owner Carlos "Big Daddy" Adley described as decked out with "30-foot tall diamond tucked silver lame' walls with chariot wagons in the sky, bejewled merry-go-round ponies on the bar, and horseshow VIP booths elevated six feet in the air." Sounds appropriately over the top (especially for a place co-owned by a dude with the nickname "Big Daddy), but the reason it most excites me is that it's a medium sized venue in Downtown, which means that some good but not MGM Grand or even Cosmopolitan pool level bands can be booked to play there. Vegas could use more cool venues for up and coming yet worthy bands that are not yet (and may never become) superstars to play, and The Fremont Country Club sounds like a great option for that. With bejeweled merry-go round ponies.

Until the place opens, I'm content to shoot some pool and drink some hard beer while watching a football game as good rock songs play at The Triple B. For anyone allergic to sports, there's always Insert Coins down the street (and hang out for a bit, cause I'll probably meet you there when I'm done at The Triple B).
But for everyone else, The Triple B and the still in the works Fremont Country Club are bringing a much needed dose of rock 'n' roll attitude to Fremont East. The place is cool enough that I'm almost willing to overlook the fact that one of the co-owners committed nearly unforgivable crimes against music and good taste as a member of Limp Bizkit.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Never Enough Chlorine: Strip Club Pool To Open In Early 2013

If the Mayans weren't right about the world ending later this month, perhaps they should have been: Sapphire, the world's largest Strip Club, is dipping their toes into the ever-expanding Las Vegas "daylife" scene, as the Sapphire Pool and Day Club is set to open in March, with a preview day scheduled for this week.

I mean, I'm not a moralist whose against strip clubs. I've been to my share of strip clubs. I enjoy strip clubs. In fact I have a problem where I'm spending all my money at strip clubs. Please help me. This blog is a cry for help. (None of this is true, other than the "I've been to my share of strip clubs. Don't send help). But an outdoor pool area combined with a strip club? Is this something anyone is clamoring for?

Personally, on the rare occasion when I go into a strip club (I promise, rare is the actual operative word here, I know some of you might be worrying that I'll need to set up a PayPal account to fund my sad addiction to paying for lap dances from girls with daddy issues who smell of coconut body oil), the fact that the place is dark is a good thing. I'm not saying that I'm ashamed of going or anything like that, but do I really need to pay for a lap-dance in the bright sun?

Sapphire is actually a pretty impressive operation, as far as "Gentlemen's Clubs" go. I went for a bachelor party, and between the odd conversations I got with the dancers about politics and the fact that I one of them said I look like one her Rabbi (I'm assuming it's because she has a super broody/sexy/mysterious Rabbi, and not because I look like a middle aged religious leader... I hope), I was actually impressed, in both good and bad ways, by the sheer scale of their operation. And I can understand Sapphire's desire to get involved in the extremely profitable pool-party/ dayclub trend that's overtaken Vegas like a virus transmitted through ill-advised drunken hookups, but I question the type of clientele the place will attract.

Dudes go to the pool parties to meet ladies, pure and simple. They gather around a body of water and compete with other males by showing off their abs as they attempt to impress the females. It's kind of like a nature documentary, with big name DJs shipped in from Europe to provide the soundtrack instead of Morgan Freeman's voice over narration. But that leads me to the question... will women who are not paid to be there show up at a stripper pool?

Sapphire already has a history with the pool party scene... they partnered with The Rio a few years ago to open a Sapphire themed pool area at the resort which featured topless dancers from the club, but the place was closed down in 2009 when it failed to pass an "integrity check" by local police. Basically the place had become a cess-pool of prostitution and drug deals, which is not super surprising considering everything. The so-called "integrity-checks" were voluntarily conducted by Rio management, which probably felt jumpy about diving into the venture with a strip club, so The Sapphire-run pool will probably not face such problems (and by this they will probably not run "integrity-checks," though I'm sure the other issues that integrity checkers were checking for will certainly persist).

The whole idea just has a creepster vibe in my opinion, but then again, the owners of Sapphire Pool and Day Club might be totally okay with attracting creepsters to their establishment. And it's possible I'm completely wrong and the place will become the hottest and sexiest pool area in  the city.

Either way, I'll let everyone else enjoy their douche-tastic pool party scene and take my chances at The Golden Nuggets pool on Fremont Street in Downtown. They've got a waterslide that goes through a shark tank, after all.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Continued Evolution of Downtown Las Vegas

Apologies for the slightly supremely pretentious title, but sometimes excitement for cool new things is a valid excuse for pretentiousness.Or so I tell myself.

I've spent many, many reams of digital ink typing up my praises to Downtown Las Vegas as the neighborhood continues to grow from an empty lot filled mugging-zone where one would not dare spend time after dark away from the single large street of cheesy low stakes gambling parlors into the vibrant and interesting area filled with unique and cool local businesses its quickly becoming. Places like The Downtown Cocktail Room and The Griffin and events like First Fridays have thrived and encouraged the openings of distinct watering holes like Insert Coins, The Lady SilvaBar+Bistro, Artifice, Commonwealth, and resurrected classic Atomic Liquors, as well as hipster brunch spot Eat, quirky museums that illuminate the history of the Mob and Atomic Testing in Las Vegas, the soon to open (and surprisingly cool sounding) Shipping Container Park, coffee/vinyl/zine merchants The Beat Coffeehouse, world class cultural showcase The Smith Center... you get the idea. Basically, I'm trying to say that Downtown is pretty cool.

Clearly, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and Downtown Cocktail Room proprietor Michael Cornthwaite's masterplan to convert Downtown Las Vegas into a world-class neighborhood that will attract creative and artistic young people and innovative start-ups (as well as tourists looking for a more off-beat experience than The Strip can offer) to the area is already paying off, and will continue to do so. (Let's just pray that they're not trying to gather all of those people into one Downtown neighborhood in a relatively small city so that they can use their brains to power their brain-powered giant robots. I know this fear is far fetched, but we can't rule it out as a possibility, especially since Hsieh's massive investment of his own money is so generous that some sort of unseen ulterior motive may as yet be revealed.)

Downtown's evolution continues to roll on (to mix metaphors), as list of new businesses and projects are set to debut on or near Fremont Street in the next year or so. Below is a list of just a few #DTV coming attractions I'm most excited about.

The Velveteen Rabbit
Local sisters Pam and Christina Dylag are set to open their dream bar in Downtown as soon as construction finishes, and these crushable alt-chicks have a vision. Named after their favorite children's story, set to serve craft brews and cocktails, and promising to feature an imaginative and whimsical design inspired by its imaginative name (and teased on the bar's Facebook page), the place will most likely become an essential hipster mecca, frequented by Vegan-riding bicycle riders and haunted by food trucks just outside its doors, once it opens officially in 2013.

The Life is Beautiful Festival
No, it's not a weekend devoted to the Oscar-winning Robert Benigni concentration camp set tragi-comedy, but rather a music food and wine festival that promises to bring "arena sized acts" to Downtown in an event that's being organized by a powerful coalition, including the people behind San Francisco's popular answer to Coachella, Outside Lands, the marketing group behind First Fridays, and the guy who served as The Cosmopolitan's music director. Despite the terrible name and even though they have promised "arena-sized" artists, Life is Beautiful has the lot of potential to bring back a full-on music festival that's a little less corporate-driven than iHeart Radio to Las Vegas and features acts a little more interesting and outside-the-box than Lady Gaga or Usher (and which will hopefully be organized in a way that will lead to less diva-like onstage tantrums from mega-selling pop-stars who petulantly insist they're not Justin Bieber).

Bolt Barbers
The irreverent and dude-friendly barbershop, which gained some notoriety by promoting their bad reviews with a "people hate us on Yelp" flag that became so popular that they turned it into book form. Now the cutting-edge hair-cutters are moving to the Shipping Container Park in Las Vegas, in a converted train caboose. Obviously, this place could not be cooler, so get on the crazy train and score yourself a great new cut before you hit the bars on your next Vegas adventure.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Escape from Douchebaggery, Part 33: Commonwealth

The reinvention of Downtown Las Vegas continues clicking along with the just opened Commonwealth, a Cocktail lover's dream and the first of many interesting spots opening on and around Fremont Street in upcoming months. So new that the place hasn't even had its official grand opening yet (they're still in the middle of adjusting things to get it all right during their soft-opening), Commonwealth instantly became one of my favorite bars in Las Vegas after my first visit (or basically once I walked in the doors during my first visit).

Commonwealth's pre-prohibition era atmosphere brings a trend that's gained some steam in other cities to Las Vegas, as it shares a similar vibe with popular Downtown LA establishments where people often dress to the nines in flapper girl dresses and vintage suits like The Edison, Villain's Tavern, and The Varnish. But Commonwealth isn't just chasing a trend... the place has a special magic and quirky voice of its own, and its just the kind of spot that proves Downtown is really coming into its own.

The place looks modest from the outside, but like The Tardis, it's bigger on the inside. The massive, 6,000 square foot building features a large main-bar area, a rooftop patio with great views of the city, and a hidden speakeasy in the back that can fit 28 patrons at a time and will feature a special cocktail menu. The place is flat out gorgeous, with design touches that are singular and quirky including dark wood floors, exposed brick walls, beautiful chandeliers hanging from exposed beams, plush and colorful mismatched chairs, unique wall murals and paintings by local artists, vintage Newspapers and black and white photos stuck to the walls, animal-print rugs, and an antique player-piano shoved into a corner. A statue of a dog dressed up in old English duds proudly greets customers at the main bar while a gorgeous albino peacock hangs behind the bar-tenders. Grab a seat at the communal bar in the middle of the main room, or snuggle up with that special someone in the leather booths, which are built into alcoves that afford you a little privacy.

The drink menu is excellent, with interesting signature cocktails created by excellent mixologists that pay homage to the roaring 20's. I enjoyed the extremely elaborate Horny Tailgater, a Whiskey Sour made with Wild Turkey and delicious smoky Barbecue bitters, topped off with PBR in glass rimmed with salt that mixes Peach and Mesquite flavors. As if that wasn't enough, the whole thing features a garnish of Beef Jerky floating atop this truly epic drink. Considering all that goes into the Cocktail, the price was totally reasonable compared to the fancy-pants mixology establishments in LA (and around the same price-point as excellent signature drinks they serve at The Downtown Cocktail Room).

They also feature an excellent selection of rotating craft brews, the names of which are scrawled on chalkboards behind the bar. I ordered pints of Stone Arrogant Bastard and Old Rasputin out of taps creatively topped by vintage boxing gloves and tennis rackets. I was wary of the Wells Bannana Bread Ale because I don't usually go in for flavored beers, but the bartender sold me on it and he was right... it was excellent and gave me a warm feeling, probably a Pavlovian response that triggered memories of my mother's home-cooked Banana Bread.

The Speakeasy isn't open to the public quite yet (though it will be very soon), but the rooftop patio is certainly worth visiting. The bar on the roof actually offers their own cocktail menu, with the tasty East of Fremont's (a potent mix of Gin, Cucumber soda, and interesting spices that give the drink a nice kick) and features plush couches for kicking back with drinks and enjoying views of The Fremont area and the city's skyline. The rooftop is where live bands will perform in the future, don't be afraid to climb the staircase, with its black  New Orleans-style railings, to access the chilled out area.

The creators of Commonwealth hit it out of the park with their quirky design flourishes and seriously great pre-prohibition style mixology program as they've brought yet another exciting and unique local business to a neighborhood that is quickly becoming the coolest and most colorful corner of Las Vegas.