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Bengal’s Vegas Cinema Deep Dive part 1 of 2

Thanks to the glory of the Gorillaz, I visited Vegas last weekend. Seeing them live for the first and maybe only time was quite something. I got a new white t-shirt of them over there to both commemorate the event and because a white shirt in the Vegas heat is better than a black one. Also, the black shirt I’ve got was wearing down and getting too tight.

I couldn’t help but take a break from 80s cinema for my retrospective series to focus on some recent Hollywood offerings about the city of “second” chances. All of them are from the 90s to today and in doing so removes some titles that were already waiting on my watchlist far in the future after I conquer everything in my 80s’ itinerary.

The second part will be two movies based or inspired by historical fact, seeing which is better at telling a history lesson and which is just the better film. These three explore the cool, the profane and the sad of what is known in English as The Meadows.

Ocean’s 11 (2001)

Image from IMDB (Release the Safe-Crackers.)

Steven Soderbergh is a man who, comfortably it seems, lives in two worlds. Ever since his breakthrough debut in 1989’s Sex, Lies and Videotape (which of course dear viewer I will one day tackle), the bald maestro has done many, many films. Some have been mainstream work that even attained critical and commercial success like the film here and others are movies which made so little money you’ve likely never heard of them.

My first time seeing a Soderbergh picture was 2017’s Logan Lucky and how fortuitous for me that that was my first film of his. It’s a heist film involving some West Virginia brothers breaking a southern-fried Daniel Craig out of prison so they can perform a break-in of the Charlotte Speedway during a Nascar race. It’s a Robin Hood tale with it’s players consisting of the proudly podunk, yet smart enough to know that the system has screwed them. They’re just about smart enough to perform a Danny Ocean play but on a smaller scale.

It’s an endearing little movie and proved prophetic for Daniel Craig’s future career choices of playing Dixie-accented figures like in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. I don’t know if any film of his before Ocean’s 11 could be construed as heist picture, but as the general public is concerned, 2001 was the beginning of a more playful Soderbergh experience.

The early 2000’s was a good time to be that man. In 2000, he somehow found the time to make two blockbusters, Traffic and Erin Brockovich. He would follow up the next year with his interpretation of a Rat Pack flick from 1960. Frank Sinatra and his thick as thieves performer friends got involved in a heist picture that on paper sounds like it should be a classic of the era.

Imagine it, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin alongside eight others on a daring Vegas heist plan: Rob five casinos in one night. Sounds awesome, right? Well, apparently not, as the original Ocean’s 11 is not a film to write home about from basically all accounts. Aside from the Rat Pack presence, inspiring the concept of the first modern feature and there being a crew numbering 11, nothing about it is exceptional.

It seems evident to me that Soderbergh took a film maybe he liked as a kid, thought could be better and did just that. The remake stands a better chance of being remembered, respected even in the long course of time. It’s rare that a remake utterly eclipses the original but here we are.

Danny Ocean is played by an actor, who almost by design, was meant to portray a heist crew ringleader, George Clooney. It takes a lot to make the guy not charming or charismatic. It is sadly possible, as evidenced by Batman and Robin.

After leaving prison, with the board narrowly deciding that he won’t go back to his robbery wiles, Danny immediately starts canvassing to get a crew together for a job that’s more personal than just business.

He gets his number two from L.A. back, Rusty (Brad Pitt), and tells him that despite his recently concluded prison time and that he’s supposed to stay in New Jersey as part of his parole, he wants to rob three Vegas casinos in a single night. Fortunately, there is an underground vault where money that comes from those three casinos is stored. The establishments are all run by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), a mildly criminal business magnate whose as far as I can tell is actually on the level. His only vice really is that if someone screws him in any way, his retribution is quite disproportionate.

In order to make us not despise even like the heist crew, to want them to outright win, the victim of this supposedly victimless crime has to be on some level, unsympathetic or villainous. Only Terry is affected by his money being stolen so you don’t feel uncomfortable at the ultimately still criminal thing the Eleven pull off. This is more so for caper films where the crew gets away scot free, a more recent trend in the genre.

It used to be the case that the crooks would start to get what’s coming to them after the heist is successfully pulled off, their own greed and/or carelessness being their undoing. It lets the more morally minded audiences of yesteryear have it both ways: they get to enjoy a risky, even stressful break-in occur and then after it is gloriously accomplished, they still get the hammer of the law smacked on them, so the audience is reminded that as cool as that caper was, please don’t commit any crimes.

Outside of wanting to show how awesome a caper-man he is and I guess money in and of itself, why is Danny going forward with this super dangerous, seemingly impossible job? Well, his ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts) is dating Terry and he still holds a candle for her. It’s not so much showing up Terry as ultimately he must not know for certain he pulled the caper, it’s just to impress his old flame, show her that he most certainly still has it, even after having served time.

Danny and Rusty assemble the 11 in a humorous, expectedly montage manner. Strangely enough, it can also come across like Seven Samurai or any film like Magnificent Seven that apes Kurosawa’s masterpiece: looking around for people to join a team on what could be a suicide mission.

One of the eleven is someone they already know: Frank Catton (Bernie Mac), a con man and actor whose good at drawing attention away from something more important, a must for someone who won’t just do it the forceful way, which in Vegas is essentially either a prison or death sentence.

The guy who gets them the financing and equipment is Reuben, an old friend of Danny who’s the only other member who has a personal stake: he lost his casino to Terry and wants some bloodless revenge. Won’t be the last time that Elliot Gould appears in my Vegas series.

Scott Caan, the late James Caan’s son, and Casey Affleck play Virgil and Turk, two mechanic brothers who play the getaway drivers. Eddie Jemison is Dell, the appropriately named tech guy. Don Cheadle is the cockney accented demolitions man and Shaobo Qin is a short, Chinese acrobat who goes from circus attraction to both genuinely impressive athlete and comic relief, often through his very flexible body.

Rounding out the eleven is Carl Reiner as the old con artist Saul who decides an almost certain to fail heist in Vegas is better than dogtrack betting. At least it will be entertaining for him no matter the outcome. Due to his advanced age compared to everyone else, he’s the one who appears the most vulnerable and even likely to die just for that reason.

The real life Reiner was in his late 70s in 2001 and still had the moxy for two more capers down the road. He managed to have a one line cameo in 2019’s Toy Story 4 before he finally cashed out the following year in 2020 at 98. This tangent is here because I was genuinely impressed by Reiner’s longevity after Ocean’s 11 made it look like this was a swan song role. For him, he was never too old for one last score, bless him.

Finally, MATT DAMON. Sorry, I momentarily envisioned his unflattering voice and appearence from Team America, which oddly enough the real man actually likes. Damon is the young rookie Linus picked up in Chicago by Danny Ocean. Despite his inexperience, his skill’s undeniable as he did manage to pick-pocket a guy like Ocean.

Due to Julia Roberts being prominently featured in the marketing and because usually there is a token female, I assumed Tess or someone else would take the place of one of the eleven. I actually thought Reiner’s Saul was going to die before the job began. Referencing Seven Samurai again, one of the seven dies before the big battle that closes out the movie. I thought Damon was supposed to debut later as no. 12 in the next movie. This uncertainty and getting everything mixed up sure helped with the drama of a job that you already know is going to succeed.

The inevitability that the heist will, 90% of the time, be pulled off doesn’t ruin the magic. You want to see how it’s pulled off, what tricks or on the spot actions are taken to make it work. More importantly, can the audience place themselves in the shoes of someone like Terry Benedict and believe that they got duped?

Despite being over 20 years old now, it really is great that I was entirely unspoiled to how this movie plays out. Let’s just say for your sake that the movie plays a con on you not unlike how in Redford and Newman’s The Sting, the finale fools both the main antagonist and the audience with one big sleight of hand. There’s a sleight of hand that Ocean and Co. pull off that I should have seen coming but was successfully prevented from predicting. The bastards got me good and I loved it.

How Soderbergh goes about with Ocean and his eleven eventually thirteen continuing to cleverly dupe both antagonist and audience remains a divisive topic. Ocean’s 12 released three years later is seen as the weakest of the now four contemporary Ocean pictures. Soderbergh on the other hand thinks the opposite and considers 12 to be the best of the three movies he made. I’m not curious enough to see if that’s true.

I’m not even curious enough to check out 2007’s 13 which was seen as better but the details of how Danny Ocean pulls it off that time has been taken to task as too ridiculous. Can’t honestly speak for the recent Ocean’s 8, where Sandra Bullock plays Danny’s sister, on any account other than I hear it’s just OK and that Soderbergh didn’t direct.

What I can tell you is that the first time is considered the charm and does as good a job as you can imagine making you understand why Clooney and Pitt aren’t just considered sexy Hollywood royalty but charming royalty. To preface way down my thoughts on the early works of Jim Jarmusch, this movie will put a spell on you.

The Hangover (2009)

Image from IMDB (Two of the three man Wolf Pack, encountering a very annoying problem.)

Just recently, I rewatched the Simpsons episode having Homer and Ned Flanders going on a trip to Las Vegas, all because the latter is worried he’s wasted his life being a totally square, unhip Christian man. On the one hand, he looks barely 40 at the age of 60 due to his pious lifestyle. On the other hand, he wonders concerningly what he’s been missing. Homer, despite normally despising stupid, lousy Flanders is actually happy to help him with his unusual life crisis.

Eventually, both Homer and Ned got so wasted that they forget a wild night that involves them both getting married to some strippers and their escapades eventually involve a tiger, a Mike Tyson parody and it all takes place in a joke version of Caesar’s Palace.

The Hangover is a story of two brothers and their two best friends going on a bachelor party trip to Las Vegas. As the title makes inevitable, a wild night is stripped from memory as three of the four wake up to find one’s missing. The hotel they groggily awake in is Caesar’s Palace and the following proceedings will include a tiger, one of them marrying having married a stripper (played by Heather Graham), and Mike Tyson.

My friends, what we have here is a case of what South Park famously called “SIMPSONS DID IT!” Or, The Simpsons already did it. Sure, there are more details to what should have been an unforgettable night for the four but man they just had to drink what is revealed to be roofies at the start of the night. A lot of those details would’ve been almost impossible to allow on the Simpsons.

Todd Phillips most critically successful movie was a sleeper hit in the summer of 2009. Only an abysmal Transformers sequel and Pixar’s masterpiece Up made more money that season. Before the Hangover came out, the idea of a drunken, crazy night with a destructive aftermath was already a concept. Again, the Simpsons. So, what made this take on the idea into such a cultural phenomenon, leading to two lackluster sequels and essentially launching the careers of Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms?

It was probably that this take leaned in on at being a comical mystery, seeing how far down the rabbit hole the three friends fell and for rewatch value, seeing how the pieces fit together before the credits show a chronological photo montage of the wild night.

It’s also the interplay of the three friends searching for the fourth. Bradley Cooper’s Phil is nominally the most mature and is revealed to be a dad by the film’s end. He is the most concerned with dealing with the problem as orderly as possible and when things refuse to go their way, grows the most aggressive. Ed Helms’ Stu is the put upon guy, with an overly controlling girlfriend and a real passive streak that comes with a lack of spine. The wild night reveals that he is a more decisive person when under the influence.

Maybe the most memorable of the Wolf Pack is Galifianakis’ Alan, a man-child who despite growing up with a loving brother can’t seem to mature fully into an emotionally adult person. For me, this is ironic considering that due to the beard Alan looks the oldest of the three or at least in appearence the least child-like. He’s the innocuous type of man-child, as he can’t even bring himself to swear like his friends.

What works about the humorous task of seeing the Wolf Pack learn about the night and figure out how to unscrew themselves is the balance between being not absurd enough or too absurd. Nothing about The Hangover is completely off the wall bonkers. It seems crazy enough to actually happen and that this is set in Vegas, a place notorious for wild, seemingly unrealistic events helps shore up plausibility.

It could be my bias in favor of the striped, orange animal, but seeing how the trio deals with the tiger in their bathroom is the most enjoyable obstacle they have to solve. It’s also the scenario that seems least likely for them to resolve because it’s a tiger in a Caesar’s Palace hotel room. How the tiger got up there is never explained and it is honestly better that is never revealed. We certainly know how the friends came across it and it ties into another famous obstacle: Mike Tyson.

One of the greatest boxers of all time is notorious for his behavior off the ring with an incident involving punching someone down some stairs being for many the standout moment. Now, while playing himself in an acting role, part of the humor is not only that the Wolf Pack got involved in a bad way with Tyson, but their fear that Tyson will physically hurt them, due to reputation. I ain’t spoiling if he does though considering this film’s blockbuster status, you likely already know.

The Hangover presents conventions of a stay in Vegas going wrong to comedic effect as intended but it also sometimes subverts what you think might happen. The reveal that Stu drunkenly married a stripper comes to a conclusion that some may seem coming and others won’t. I didn’t, for what’s it worth and it sometimes feels that The Hangover is almost satirizing the cliches of Vegas more than simply comically upping the ante about them.

Let’s get to the obstacle that I’m sure split people more than not on how funny or unfunny it was. Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow works for the intended reason of being an eccentric Chinese mobster that the Wolf Pack got in trouble with. In terms of how actually funny he is, that is subjective even by the standards of comedy. Clearly, Phillips thought people liked Jeong as Chow since he’s around for the whole trilogy.

I didn’t like him though I could at least tolerate him. He is meant to be annoying for the Wolf Pack, further emphasizing how deep the problems they have go. My first real exposure to Ken Jeong was in the third Transformers movie playing a horribly grating and quite racist figure who calls himself Deep Wang. A person who has traded information with the Decepticons in secret, he gets up close and personal with Shia LeBeouf’s Sam in an infuriating comedy sequence that does at least end with him getting killed by a Decepticon.

I was actually cheering when he finally did die, albeit from an dumb interpretation of a fan-favorite Transformers villain. It was moments like Jeong’s contribution to Transformers where it felt less like another immature comedy skit and more like Michael Bay and writer Ehren Kruger were demonstrating spite on those hoping to have a decent film involving transforming, warring robots.

Jeong is never near as horrible in at least the first Hangover as he is in Transformers 3. He serves his purpose, acts as a genuine threat to our marginal heroes and once his role is done, it is done.

The Hangover’s success can also be best recognized for its interpretation that comedy should be about failure. We laugh at fictional characters making mistakes and suffering defeats over and over again. While this film is about the Wolf Pack stumbling their way out of a totally ruinous mess and actually triumphing, be honest with yourselves: your amusement also comes from seeing them in these messed situations and wondering how worse it will get before it does get better.

The Wolf Pack are not the most likable group of characters and thankfully them not always being sympathetic actually adds to the comedy at times. They’re just likable enough and that they ultimately make it out of Vegas with some dignity intact is a testament to one of the lessons that can be given out like a PSA message: Teamwork matters. One of the funniest moments is when the Pack have to win back some money so they can pay Chow in exchange for what they think is their missing friend.

Alan gets cleaned up, dressed up and uses a guidebook about gambling to help beat the system and win the money. Though it predates it, Alan’s mental process at the game table is just like Sherlock piecing together the mystery’s clues.

It’s not the best comedy I’ve seen, it’s not the best film about Vegas I’ve seen. But it is a film that can be understood for why it was the surprise hit of 2009. Those with the right attitude will enjoy, maybe even savor this comedy with quite an attitude all its own.

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Image from Business Insider (The Unbearable Weight of Massive Hangovers)

Based on a novel from a young author who shot himself after learning his book would be made into a novel, Leaving Las Vegas is often considered one of Nicolas Cage’s best movies, proof that he is more than just his eccentricities or voice. The Academy thought so, they gave him Best Actor.

It’s a film that shows perhaps the best the utterly sad, unenviable side of Las Vegas. Or at least, for those who have and could live there. Cage’s Ben Sanderson is a drunk. A hopelessly, I mean hopelessly drunk man. He can’t write scripts for Hollywood anymore and his addiction, compulsion to drink has cost him his wife, kids and circle of friends. After getting a “golden parachute” pension from the workplace who shows uncommon pity on him, he decides to buy as much booze as possible, burns all of his personal belongings and drives to Vegas.

Why Vegas? Oh, it’s not to gamble, he has no reason to. Other than gambling, what is one thing that place has in great quantity? Booze. Based on my recent trip, I can confirm that in 2022, that is still very true. It might’ve been the first time I’ve personally encountered drunk people. I’m so sheltered.

There, he meets Sera, played by Elisabeth Shue. I know her as the girlfriend for Daniel-San in the original Karate Kid, the replacement for Jennifer, Marty McFly’s girlfriend in the Back to the Future sequels and recently in a very uncomfortable to watch role in the first season of The Boys. Here, she’s a prostitute who is able to get much free time to spend with Ben after her Latvian pimp Yuri (Julian Sands) gets whacked due to his poor turnout of profit.

Ben goes from being customer who really isn’t interested in her “services” to simply having someone to talk to in his last days. He intends to drink so much that it kills him. Overtime, the two start to become romantically involved in spite of one having a terminal connection to liquor and the other being a lady of the night.

As you could infer, they come together due to both being outcasts of society: one a failed screenwriter turned drunkard and the other a hooker. This and a little more causes their romance to blossom, but Ben says rather bluntly that she can’t expect him to be kept from his “drink to death” mission. No matter what, it will happen, no matter how much it hurts.

Nicolas Cage’s voice adds well to the sense of a person being hammered and then some. Even when sober, his voice has a certain lilt which suggests something is off. Anyone who has heard Nic Cage speak knows what I’m talking about. He’s perfect for the role as Ben is never sober, not once in the film. He’s clear-headed enough at times to socialize with Sera, to know how to push back verbally when he thinks he has to.

His performance did make me wonder about how often Cage actually drank, because makeup aside he does look and act like a drunk. It gets increasingly discomforting to watch because I started to wonder if Cage actually caused himself harm playing this role. Now, obviously there are certain parts where you can tell he wasn’t actually hurt. The end result of drinking to death can’t be replicated because you know you’re endangering an actor at that point. It’s like actors including extras who play Holocaust victims.

How much should be done to show the starved, weakened results of that genocide? You got to make sure the actors are healthy enough at the end of the day or really put in the movie magic to create the visual illusion of a person brought physically low by the holocaust.

Directed by Mike Figgis, there is an appropriately dreamy look to the film, helped along by Anthony Marinelli and Figgis’ own composition of the score. A jazz score that always underscores that this film will not head to a happy ending, even though the convention is that the drunk will be saved and sober up, helped along by the hooker with the heart of gold. Nope, real life is not often enough like that Hollywood ending and the real life plight of John O’Brien, the story’s writer, cements that.

This Vegas movie is not about Vegas, it is merely the backdrop to a man’s fall and a woman’s potential rise above her current lifestyle. The 90s’ filmgrain, which is quite thick, lends to this environment of forlornness, where every bright spot in Ben and Sera’s short time together is followed up by a reminder that none of this is going to last.

This sure sounds like a depressing watch and the film all but begins with the warning that don’t expect it to lighten up. I found it more sad than depressing. Maybe it was me knowing ahead of time that Ben was indeed doomed to the fate he had decided for himself, perhaps knowing eased that. Or I don’t know, maybe something more depressing in my own life actually made this an escape. A coolly filmed picture which better than any other movie in this series of mine makes you feel like you’re in Vegas, no matter the circumstances.

It’s not the best film about Vegas I’ve seen, but it’s the best set in Vegas I’ve seen.

Part Two: Coming this Weekend

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