Tag Archives: Las Vegas

In which I take a big s**t over the Big Short

26 Jan

 

the big short

The Big Short, starring Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt and Christian Bale

It’s not often I see a film that makes me angry, but hot new Oscar contender The Big Short managed it. Not because of any righteous rage engendered by its star-studded, faux-documentary-style expose of the banking crash of 2008 – my rage at that was righteous enough already – but because of the patronising, intelligence-insulting, comedic-didactic way it chose to tell the story.

Maybe there are people so incurious about the near-collapse of the global economy and Capitalism itself that they never bothered to read up on it, and to discover how the banks rolled sub-prime mortgages into a grab-bag of triple A-rated bonds with the connivance of lazy and/or corrupt regulators, and that the banks, when they realised the whole thing was going tits-up, then took out their own shorting positions, effectively betting against themselves and their own investors in order to protect themselves in the final weeks or days before the financial apocalypse. If so, they will find much here to enlighten them.

For the rest of us, it’s like having Russell Brand bellow “Wake Up, Sheeple!” into a megaphone for two hours, interrupted occasionally by L’Oreal Elvive’s Jennifer Aniston tossing her golden locks knowingly to camera as she warns, for the benefit of beauty-loving women who obviously therefore have no brain, “Here comes the science bit!”

Here’s how close the Aniston analogy actually is: near the beginning, there is an explanation of financial terms that the film-makers worry will make the viewer nod off, despite being illustrated with pictures of puppies in sunglasses, I kid you not. Here the film actually stops like a scratched record and says, in these exact words, “Are you getting bored? These terms are designed by Wall Street to give the impression that only they know how to understand them. So here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it.”

They actually do cut to Margot Robbie – the comely actress from The Wolf of Wall Street, playing herself, not a character in the movie – sipping Champagne in a bubble bath as she talks about how the crisis originated. [As another journalist has pointed out, this is far from the only sexist aspect to The Big Short: it also leaves out a key real-life female player, and “amusingly” tries to sugar-coat another load of financial exposition by setting it in a strip club.] Other such breakings of the fourth wall include “celebrity chef” Anthony Bourdain explaining bad bonds through the medium of fish stew, and Selena Gomez demonstrating CDO’s through a Vegas Blackjack table.

No doubt the critics, who have raved about the film, see all these devices as thrillingly post-modern. I think that kind of thing is becoming cliched, myself, but my real problem is with the film telling its audience, loudly and clearly: “You’re all celebrity-obsessed jackasses who won’t listen to anything unless it comes from a gorgeous star’s pouting lips or hits you over the head with a hammer, so here you go, you’re welcome.” Maybe some people are like that. But even so, you don’t usually convince someone of an argument by first insulting them, you patronising triple A-holes.

Sigh. All right: on the plus side, the cast are excellent, particularly Christian Bale, cast against type as a borderline autistic heavy-metal-loving maths whizz with a glass eye and poor social skills who staked hundreds of millions on betting against the supposedly infallible housing market – the “big short” of the title. I am also enormously glad that risky, brave, high-profile films with a social conscience are being made at all: kudos here to Brad Pitt, who is behind this one as producer, as he was behind 12 Years A Slave. And, as I said, many people like it: it’s had four-to-five star reviews and won the Producers’ Guild award for best film. In disliking it, I kind of feel like the people depicted in The Big Short: convinced of my rightness against the prevailing orthodoxy.

So let’s go for broke. In my last blog, I wrote how The Big Short had suddenly surged to become William Hill’s front runner for the Best Film Oscar. Call me crazy (you wouldn’t be the first), but I think Oscar is more discerning than that. So I’m going to contact William Hill and try to lay my own “short” – betting against it winning.

 

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Now You See Me: the secret mind control behind the film magic revealed

2 Jul

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Now You See Me is an old-fashioned caper movie with a 21st-century sheen: Ocean’s Eleven meets Derren Brown. A raggle-taggle band of magicians — mentalist Woody Harrelson, escapologist Isla Fisher, card sharp Jesse Eisenberg and street hustler Dave Franco – are recruited one by one by a mysterious hooded figure who uses their skills in elaborate Robin Hood stunts to redistribute wealth. Morgan Freeman plays the magic-buster who is there to explain their tricks to the cops (Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent), and thereby also to the viewer; Michael Caine also lends star power in an underwritten part.

The film has become a surprise hit in the US, grossing over $100 million in a summer full of blockbusters, and industry pundits have put that down to good word-of-mouth and marketing centred on much-loved Morgan Freeman. That may be true, but I have another explanation, a fiendish and cunning explanation, one that all along has been hiding in plain view.

Look again at the poster: the film’s seven stars gaze up at you hypnotically, like Reservoir Dogs in 3D, over the vast heading “Now You See Me”. Having communed with my inner Derren Brown, I can exclusively reveal that it is in reality one giant subliminal command. As in, “You: See Me. Now!”

You might as well just go with it. The film is directed with enormous energy by Louis Leterrier of Transporter and Hulk fame, and spectacularly well edited by his regular collaborator Vincent Tabaillon (jointly credited with veteran Robert Leighton). One might wish more effort had been put into making the characters as likeable or the love story as convincing as the tricks, but the plot twists cleverly, keeping one step ahead of the viewer right up to the final frame.

That said, the key to magic, as the protagonists keep telling us, is misdirection, and that applies just as well to Now You See Me. It’s a film of smoke and mirrors, blinding the viewer to the fact that, at heart, it’s utter tosh. As with machines, the most durable criminal plans have the fewest moving parts; the magicians’ ridiculously complex schemes could easily have gone awry at any juncture.

And illusion on film simply doesn’t thrill the way it does live. When I was a kid, I half-believed in vampire visitations and fairy-tale wishes, and was so convinced that my parents were shape-changing aliens that I rattled the doorknob before entering to give them time to adopt human form. No? Just me, then?

Anyway, the David Blaines and Derren Browns can reconnect you to that childish sense of prickling wonder, where you almost start believing, for a split second, telepathy, or levitation, or the power to predict the future. On film you just believe in the power of CGI to do anything and that Woody Harrelson has read a script rather than minds.

Film itself has been called “magic at 24 frames per second”. To me, it’s enough to see other human beings living intensely on screen, in places I could never visit, and lose myself so completely inside them that I emerge at the end credits blinking, surprised to find myself sitting in a cinema.

This is not the kind of magic Now You See Me performs. But if you want nothing more than a highly entertaining way to spend an evening, then… alakazam!

Now You See Me opens on July 3

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

22 Jun

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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.

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

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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.