Archive | June, 2013

Victoria Coren: my life in poker, and the WSOP Main Event

22 Jun

Image

Earlier this month I played in the Millionaire Maker tournament of the World Series of Poker, without success. Victoria Coren, my own poker mentor (it was playing at her home game, ten years ago, that I discovered how complex and fascinating the modern game was), may have rather more success when she heads out to Vegas next week.

I’ve just interviewed Vicky about her love of poker and her marriage to comedian David Mitchell in the International Business Times: click here. For my guide to the top 12 places to play in Vegas, click here. NEW: FOR MORE ON VICKY’S HISTORIC DOUBLE EPT VICTORY ON EASTER SUNDAY, click here.

Man Of Steel: repaint the ‘S’ on his chest with a ‘Z’

21 Jun

Image

What a colossal bore Man of Steel turns out to be. To get all Shakespearean on your ass, it’s a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It’s about as engaging as spending 143 minutes watching a statue.

Henry Cavill looks the part, sure; but he’s just not given anything interesting to do or say. The extended back story about his Kryptonian origins is about the most enjoyable thing, and even then not very — it’s all kind of rent-a-sci-fi, an origin without originality – and that only emphasises how resolutely earth-bound the rest of the movie is. Russell Crowe is good, and reminds you there was once some point to him. Michael Shannon, despite the hype, is wasted here on a one-note performance as General Zod that runs the gamut of emotions from intense, all the way through to even more intense.

It’s a shame. I wanted to love it, and I’ve read some pro reviews and seen the 8.1 grade on IMDB, but guys, guys, you have to give me someone to root for, something real to care about. It’s moral dilemmas, emotional conflicts that make even an action movie, not just the punch-ups. The only affecting scene in the movie from that perspective is the tornado (no spoilers by saying more). Superman deciding he was going to side with nice Earth people against mean Kryptonians was never an agonising choice.

So, Superman must save the world – in the guise of Metropolis aka New York — from destruction by an alien ship hovering above it. The climax of Avengers Assemble was spookily similar, only WAAAAAY more fun and inventive. If you’re going to give us a standard action-movie-type punch-up, at least make the choreography of it inventive, not just shot after shot of evenly matched superheroes punching each other through buildings. For instance: what really happens when an omnipotent force meets an immovable object? Put some thought into it, please.

The other problem is the production design. It’s as though Zack Snyder had heard that 50 Shades of Gray was wildly popular, but hadn’t realised the title was not meant literally. I’ve seen mime artists less muted than the colour palette of this movie.

And finally, Amy Adams. I like Amy Adams. Who doesn’t? But investigative reporters are not nice. Smart, yes, driven, yes, deceitful, yes. Nice, not so often. Casting her as some kind of latter-day Hildy Johnson just doesn’t fly.

And while we’re on the subject, what’s with this niceness epidemic? The essence of drama is conflict. But here, look at the people of planet Earth, not one of them is any less than thoroughly nice, apparently: Lois Lane, supercutely-nice; hard-bitten editor Perry White, yup, will selflessly risk his own life for his staff; even the army guys, after mistrusting Superman for about a second, get behind the cape and play nice.

Speaking of the army, that brings me on to a scene so extraordinarily stupid and casually sexist that, if it hadn’t come right at the end, I might have walked out. The notion that a woman, having recently won the right to serve alongside men in the military, having completed a gruelling training regime to weed out all but the leanest, meanest fighting machines, and having been entrusted with the position of aide to the most powerful general in America — the notion that this able, driven young woman would, on being confronted with the extraordinary spectacle of a God-like walking weapon in a cape more dangerous than any nuclear bomb, simply simper and giggle and say “I just think he’s kinda hot”… Shame on you, David S Goyer. 

Aguirre, Wrath of God: the tale of a lunatic, told by madmen

18 Jun

Image

On Sunday I saw Werner Herzog’s startling, visionary, hallucinatory 1972 film Aguirre, Wrath of God at the BFI Southbank with my 17-year-old son. It was a big moment, as well as a great film, for two reasons.

One, that my son would choose this over the easy thrills of Man of Steel shows how far he’s come in his own cinephile journey (click here for the funny, sweet short film he made in Film Studies). Two, Aguirre was the film that turned me on to European art cinema, when I myself was 17.

The film stands up to time. Slow by modern standards, but, as my son said, still not a second wasted.

Aguirre tells of a doomed expedition of Spanish conquistadors to find the legendary gold city of Eldorado, sailing downriver through the jungle on makeshift rafts at the mercy of hostile Indians, in scenes that are a blatant influence on Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It opens with an astonishing shot of hundreds of soldiers and their South American Indian slaves winding their way down a vertiginous mountain pass. As the fog slowly parts, like the mists of time, it’s clear that the film will be more symbolic as literal.

The second in command, Aguirre, is consumed with dreams of glory. He betrays his commander and leads his men through a combination of sheer will and sudden brutality. “That man is a head taller than me,” he says to his henchman, as he overhears talk of mutiny; “that may change.”

After the henchman takes the hint and decapitates the conspirator with a machete, so suddenly that his severed head completes his final sentence from the ground, Aguirre delivers an inspirational pep talk to the rest of his starving, fever-stricken troops: “Anyone considering desertion will be cut into 198 pieces and trampled on until you can paint the walls with him.”

But it’s not so much what he says and does, as how he is, that inspires fear and awe. Klaus Kinski is a one-off: a diagnosed schizophrenic and insatiable sexual libertine, his fleshy lips are set in a perpetual sneer, and slashed across his face like an engorged sexual organ; his jagged cheekbones provide a constant reminder of the skull beneath the skin; his gigantic eyes are as blue as the sky and as cold as ice.

Watching Aguirre stroke his 15-year-old daughter’s hand, brought along on this lunatic venture because he could not bear to be parted from her, is made especially uncomfortable by the revelation earlier this year that Kinski’s younger daughter Pola was sexually abused by him from the ages of 5 until 19.

Kinski’s mere presence helps elevate the film to the realms of myth. As Aguirre refuses to abandon his dreams despite overwhelming odds, you question what a fine line it is that separates the madman from the visionary, genius from delusion. It’s a question Herzog has returned to again and again in his film-making career, and in a sense, it is the story of every director, and every film. The making of each feature is a triumph of will, a victory of dreams over common sense, an impossible task conducted by a madman with dreams of glory leading a raggle-taggle band of occasionally mutinous followers.

Herzog more than others. The shooting of Aguirre was famously fraught: the perilous raft journey you see on film was real, and experienced by the actors; the fevers they suffered, real too. Herzog and Kinski fell out so badly that – accounts differ wildly – a gun was brought into play. And yet, a decade later, they reunited in the South American jungle to make Fitzcarraldo. This time, their task was to haul a three-storey, 320-ton metal steamship up a mountain – both fictionally, and in reality.

No, they really don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Aguirre, Wrath of God is still playing (till Thursday) in a new restoration at the BFI Southbank, Curzon West End, and after that at selected venues nationwide

Las Vegas poker: my guide to the top 12 places, part 2

10 Jun

In honour of the premiere on Wednesday of the poker doc Bet Raise Fold at Palm’s, I’ve compiled my insider’s guide to Vegas’s finest poker rooms. This is part two. Click here for part one

MGM Grand (south-centre Strip): The spacious, elegant 22-table room is situated next to the Centrifuge Bar, good for landing the odd oversauced fish on your table. And now that the vast new Hakkasan restaurant/club has opened at the MGM, you can expect even more action. There’s a good range of games, including a weekly H.O.R.S.E. tournament. Tournaments: daily 11.05pm ($80), 7.05pm (Sun-Thur $80, Fri-Sat $125); Tues 7.15pm H.O.R.S.E. $120.

Mirage (centre Strip): This is one of the first places I ever played in, ten years back, and still a favourite for cash as it’s so easy to make money. There seem to be no pros, just a lot of happy holiday-makers used to friendly games back home who call off big raises in the hope of improving later. Nice atmosphere, though the dealers are infuriatingly lethargic. The tournaments and Sit ‘n’ Gos, however, are underattended and have terrible structures. Tournaments: daily 11am ($60 except Sat $110), 2pm and 10pm ($50).

Orleans (west, near Strip): This sprawling, somewhat down-at-heel casino has the largest poker room off the Strip with 35 tables, as well as the cheapest rake (capped at $3 rather than the usual $5). The players are mostly old-timers and locals, and they offer a wide selection of games and tournaments with an excellent structure given the relatively modest buy-ins. Years ago I came first equal in an Omaha tournament here, despite it being the first time I’d played (I looked up good starting hands on the internet and stuck to that), so the standard is not that hot. For a real adventure, try the H.O.R.S.E. tourney. Tournaments: daily at 12.05pm (Omaha Hi-Lo Mon-Wed $60; NL Hold ‘Em other days $60-80), and 7.05pm (Omaha Hi-Lo Mon $100, Thur $80; NL Hold ‘Em Tue $80, Wed $100, Fri $125, Sat $100; H.O.R.S.E. Sun $100).

Planet Hollywood (centre Strip): The new poker area is a great improvement on the old, which was sandwiched in between noisy slot machines. This is not a place for serious play, but it is a good place to have fun and to make money at cash. You get a lot of Brits here, and more women than in most rooms. The tournaments have a terrible structure and are best avoided. Tournaments: daily $70 at 10am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm.

Rio (west, near Strip): I’m including this as a nod to their hosting the WSOP, but outside that period there is little reason to venture out here, other than the chance to eat steak in the Voodoo Lounge after playing, which (top tip!) gives you free access to their terrific rooftop club. The poker room is small and cramped at just ten tables, the tournament structures are poor, the players random, but the staff are very efficient. Notable for the Mega Beat jackpot, one of the world’s largest, which starts at $200,000. Tournaments: daily $65 at 12noon, 3pm, 6pm, 9pm.

Venetian (centre Strip): This is the biggest of all Vegas poker rooms at 59 tables, and my favourite for tournaments, due to the size of fields, but less so for cash as it’s noisy, overly bright and you can run into some decent players. Experienced players may enjoy the variety of games on offer, with the currently trendy Open-Faced Chinese on offer as well as Omaha variants. Tournaments: daily at 12noon ($150 Mon-Thur, $200 Fri and Sun, $500 Sat), and at 7pm ($120 daily except $150 Tue and $200 Fri).

Wynn (north-centre Strip): A lovely 26-table room in one of the most relaxed and elegant casinos, this makes most people’s top three, along with the Venetian and the Aria. You get all sorts here, from sharks to money-no-object fish, with good action at mid-levels, and the staff are highly professional. Tournaments: daily at 12pm ($140 Mon-Thur, $200 Fri and Sun with $10,000 guarantee), plus 7pm Thur ($140 with $25 bounties).

For my pre-WSOP interview with Victoria Coren on her life in poker and marriage to comedian David Mitchell, click here.

Las Vegas poker: my guide to the top 12 places to play

10 Jun

Image

I have temporarily misplaced my Cannes Film Festival diary, so the tenth and final entry must wait (for the first Cannes entry, click here).

In the meantime, let’s talk poker. A new poker-themed thriller, Runner Runner, comes out this autumn starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake, and a terrific-sounding documentary, Bet Raise Fold, has its premiere at the Palms casino on Wednesday. I’m just back from a successful five days in Vegas during the World Series of Poker, so to get you in the mood, here’s my insider’s guide to the best places to play:

There may be greater places to gamble than Vegas – Singapore’s two casinos take as much revenue as all the Strip’s casinos combined, while Macau takes in seven times as much – but there is no better place to play poker. There are 30-plus different rooms, running the gamut from tourist crap-shoots to high-stakes games for hardened pros, and at the lower stakes it’s almost guilt-inducingly easy to make money: most people are hobby players, home-game regulars who fancy their chances in a proper poker room, but don’t mind blowing a few hundred bucks over a free beer or three.

I’ve been to Vegas eight times now, and have played in pretty much every poker room, usually ending the week in profit. This is a two-part guide to the 12 best: 

Aria (centre Strip): The poker room here is close to perfection, purpose-built just a few years back when the Aria opened, ultra-comfortable and with friendly and efficient staff. It attracts good players, rather than drunken fish, but it’s worth going nonetheless just to play some proper poker in a professional environment. Tournaments: daily $125 at 1pm and 7pm.

Bellagio (centre Strip): Despite its 30 tables, you have to wait a long time for a 1-3, no matter the time of day. On the plus side, the standard for 1-3 or even 2-5 is not that high, as the real pros are playing 5-10, 10-20, or “The Big Game” in Bobby’s Room where Devilfish told me he had once won a million in three days. (NB: Mind you, I’ve watched the Big Game at Starworld’s Poker King room in Macau, and written about it in Condé Nast Traveller: there you can win or lose a million in a single pot!) Nice, busy atmosphere, quick service, mostly friendly crowd. Tournaments: daily at 2pm: Mon-Thur $125, Fri-Sat $545, Sun $335.

Binion’s (Downtown): On Fremont Street in the happier, cheaper, sleazier Downtown area, Binion’s was the original home of the WSOP, and was freshened up a few years back with a new ten-table poker pit (tournaments are held upstairs, where there is more space but less atmosphere). Players are mostly old-timers, but underestimate these grizzled veterans at your peril. Do make sure you buy a FOOTBALL OF BEER (that’s two pints of beer, served in a receptacle shaped like an American football) from the outdoor frozen cocktail bar a few doors up, and tip the serving girls well — seemingly they can’t afford clothes. Tournaments: daily at 10am ($60), 2pm ($80 weekdays, $125 weekends), 8pm ($60).

Caesar’s (centre Strip): A lot of rich Eurotrash of varying playing standard, the odd perma-tanned trophy wife, and some decent players. The 25-table poker room is sealed off from the casino floor, and so can feel rather bland and soulless, until the dancing girls file through the room on their way to perform. There’s an extra room for tournaments, which can attract more runners than anywhere outside the Venetian. Tournaments: daily at 9am ($70), 12noon ($110), 4pm ($70), 7pm ($110), 10pm ($85). Also Sat-Sun 2pm ($235).

Mandalay Bay (south Strip): The poker room is nothing special — ten tables, friendly, soft players — but it is relaxing, and I include it because the casino itself is one of my favourites. It’s discreetly upscale, with a terrific vodka bar guarded by a giant headless statue of Lenin: you’ll find his head frozen, like Walt Disney’s (apocryphally), in the ice room inside. The tournaments, however, are as random as the low buy-ins suggest. Tournaments: daily at 10am ($40), 1pm ($60), 3pm ($50), 6pm ($50), 9pm ($60), 11pm ($60).

Click here for the next seven rooms.