Filming Las Vegas

Is the desert paradise that Bugsy Seigel built -- with a little help from the Boulder Dam -- a glamorous getaway for the glitterati; a Slots-of-Fun joy box for Tinseltown's vacationing spectacle engineers; a glittering, glistening gulch at the end of the Mojave Desert's long, hot treasure trail? Or is it something closer to the devil's hole: a sizzling, neon-rimmed portal to the pit where movies and their makers come for one last lapdance, gazing into the deadly brilliance of chrome-encrusted Casinos and limitlessly decorated sheds for a glimpse of inspiration, redemption, and titillation before they jam in the projector and snag, bubble, and burn? Is Las Vegas the end of vision or the beginning? It's the enigma of this cinema season, a question written in marquee lettering of every size: Martin Scorsese's Casino, Joe Eszterhas and Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls, Nicolas Cage's Leaving Las Vegas. Odds-on favorite or ultimate long shot: what does Vegas mean to the movies? Viva, or leave it? The box office wants to know. With Showgirls -- Eszterhas and Verhoeven's shriveled epic of shimmying epidermis -- the answer came too quickly: a $2.99 prime-rib dinner of a modern melodrama, Showgirls teased the possibilities of reinventing Valley of the Dolls for the trench-coat set but quickly withered as a tawdry Flashdance for the furtive. Flirtatious in its suggestion of true, lingering awfulness -- far from shy in splaying its brutish Steadicam arm-jerking and off-kilter Alvin Ailey jokes across a pimpled tundra of ice-cubed nipples and Versace bordello- wear -- the film rarely failed to entertain. Had it been 40 minutes longer, it might actually have achieved cult-status liftoff. While formally consistent with Vegas's sex-tease milieu, Showgirls proved all foreplay and no sustain: after working its prospective audience into a promotional lather (you can still rent the nine-minute coming-attraction video at your local tape hut), the film lapse-danced into rape and abandonment and closed with its heroine (and MGM's hopes for resuscitating the NC-17 rating as a symbol of maturity and adult prestige) hightailing it back to Hollywood. No one cared. No such thing can be said of St. Marty, the savior of the American art film, the patron of the pugnacious, cinema's eternal swish-pan and slam-cut second coming. The anointed one. Ain't he? Casino -- Scorsese's card-counting attempt to reinvent Goodfellas in '70s Las Vegas -- carries some heavy chips to the table. It's Raging Bull resurrected (Bobby D! Joey P!); it's the class-act rehabilitation of Sharon Stone (Eszterhas and Verhoeven's original Basic Instinct showgirl); it's three fuggin' hours long. Must be some kinda important movie. Well, bank on this much: it's got an incredible hook. In the film's opening sequence, a trim and deliriously overtailored De Niro -- the dapper incarnation of one Sam "Ace" Rothstein, a Jewish bookie sent by the Kansas City Mob to manage the Tangiers Casino -- emerges from a Vegas steak house in an eye- rending peach-toned suit (fat lapels, flash polyesters) and heads for his custom Monte Carlo. Let the voice-overs begin: "When you love someone, you gotta trust them." De Niro goes in the car, key goes in the ignition: Baa-daa-boom! Fireball, Bach choral bombast, Saul Bass title-credit montage sequence - - a neon fizz of Casino marquees and licking flames -- over which, like the obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey (or an absurd refugee from one of Robert Longo's falling-man paintings), De Niro plummets through the sky, graceful, comical, embryonic, immortal. The Gospel according to St. Marty: man and his eternal fall. Las Vegas during the '70s, we learn from the film's incessant babble of cluttered exposition and wise-guy explication, "was like a morality car wash": a land of bilk and money where the Teamsters paid for the politics, and politicians and their playthings luxuriated in penthouse suites, compliments of the house. High rollers and half-assed hustlers tramped through velour-cushioned gaming rooms in sharkskin suits that twinkled with a subtle treachery, as if cut from bolts of fiberglass. The made men and their chosen few had it sewed up; the fix was in, the money flowed, all was gravy. What could go wrong? Greed? Well, sure. A woman? Uh-huh. What else? Well, you know the old saw about never being able to find a clock in a Casino? Marty knows the feeling, and in painfully under three hours, so will you. In Casino surveillance is king: in a wary shrub-garden of exotic hair-weaves and plush-pile comb-overs, floor managers watch the pit bosses who watch the dealers watch the gamblers, and all the while the video eye in the Casino sky watches the watchers. Scorsese watches all, effecting, with his trademark neck-wrenching camera moves, a limitless parabola of paranoid pans and anxious dollies. Everyone's watching everyone else, except for the man with the bulging valise: the invisible man who jets in from Kansas City (where the Mob bosses frown and glow over their pasta and loaves like a chiaroscuroed grouping of Dutch Masters) to lighten up the cash load in the count room -- a couple mill' at a pop -- then jets back home. Nobody watches him; he's just another "fat fuck with a suitcase," trapped in another showy, Steadicam frieze. Casino -- as the credit sequence makes sure you know, if you didn't already -- charts the downward spiral of Ace's Vegas reign, a glory flummoxed, of course, by the volatility of his boyhood friend and resident whack artist, Nicky Santoro (played, as usual, by Pesci, this time "expanding his range" by squeaking out a daft, high-and-reedy accent that suggests little besides a set of too-tight false teeth). Like Pesci's Oscar-sanctioned Goodfellas thug before him, Nicky is an explosive guy: someone mouths off to someone, and before you can say "Curly, Larry, and Moe" Nicky is asserting the tips of his spit-shined shoe-boots or going for a bit of the old eye- gouge gusto. When things get too talky, or the story goes slack (as it does with runny regularity), Nicky's always ready with a baseball bat or an industrial vise. Oh sure, there's a twist on tradition: this time out, De Niro plays a guy so clinched he won't drink anything stronger than Mylanta, and he doesn't even shout at anyone until the film's final 30 minutes (a wake-up cry?). And there's a chick: Sharon Stone's Ginger McKenna, a chip-snatching hustler with a Julie Newmar smile -- the corners of her lipsticked maw could poke a hole in your gizzard. And there's greed, plenty of greed. Nicky wants power, Ace wants Ginger, Ginger -- snap! -- wants gelt: "I want my cut," she screeches in her introductory scene, humiliating her well-oiled, skinflint date by hurling his bumblebee chips into the Casino's refrigerated air. It becomes her lasting, sniveling, coke-shoveling refrain. Ace is overwhelmed by Ginger's banshee wail and badass, baby- blue leather miniskirts. So is Scorsese. Distracted for a while from his penchant for photographing his principals as if they were stained-glass illuminations, he sends his camera skittering around her craps-table crouch, jockeying for juicy positions, teasing her golden falls, and running like a bulbous thumb across her hot-pink lips. It's a mode of leering that's nearly warranted: Stone exudes enough presence (and almost enough of a performance) to leap off the screen, if only Scorsese and screenwriter Nicolas (Wiseguy) Pileggi had given her the sort of dimensionality her dresses do. Ace and Ginger lovelessly, lustlessly wed. But Ginger's heart remains with another -- Lester, a runty pimp from her past. Years pass, Ace gets jealous, Lester gets thrashed, Ginger gets fed up, Nicky gets Ginger, the feds get wise, the wise get antsy, and everybody (just about) gets whacked. (If only the movie went by that fast.) So what's left? The bit where Scorsese turns Ace, now on his way down in the Vegas food chain, into a Vegas talk-show host, effectively enacting something like Rupert (The King of Comedy) Pupkin's revenge. Wall-to-wall period music, which is cool for a while: Jerry Vale, Louis Prima, the Rolling Stones, Devo -- that's right, Devo, and not just once, to make a point about the degradation of "Satisfaction," the film's ostensible theme, but again and again, ad nauseam. Production designer Dante Ferretti's exquisite accumulation of period fashions: Pucci pantsuits and puce pumps, burnished silks and burgundy boots. The film's stunning procession of character players: a mix of Scorsese regulars (salt-and-pepper-headed Frank Vincent and Catherine Scorsese, Marty's irrepressible mom) and vintage Vegas stars (Tommy Smothers as a corrupt senator, Alan King as a corrupt Teamster). And then there's Don Rickles, who plays De Niro's right-hand man, Casino manager Billy Sherbert. Rickles: the man is a god. He has maybe eight lines of dialogue in the film, utters not a single insult, looks like a massive, primordial lizard, and steals the entire film. Steals it so effortlessly that when his turn comes for humiliation -- by Pesci, who couldn't hold a votive candle to Rickles's awesome talents -- the film turns definitively venal. Watching Pesci beat Rickles with a telephone was the lowest moment I've had in a movie theater all year. I wanted to smack Scorsese; I wanted to cry. The rest is tedium, unadulterated, desperate, a geriatrics' march from Scorsese's onetime mastery of vibrantly energized filmmaking to the sanitized sanctuary of the dollar slot machines and seen-coming-from-a-mile-away denouement. Scorsese, on record for his love of Ocean's 11 -- the Rat Pack's virtually ethnographic wide-screen portrait of '60s-era Vegas's inebriated and overpaid swinger caste -- has regurgitated (without the benefit of a Sammy Davis Jr.) their callous, crummy shtick. Sharon Stone may eventually have a shot at Angie Dickinson's hard-bitten authority (though it's doubtful), but De Niro can't decide whether he's Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, or Jerry Lewis. And it's high time someone realized that Joe Pesci has less talent than Joey Bishop or Norman Fell. If Scorsese can't reinvent cinema, or the Vegas flick, then who can? Mike Figgis? The dubious directorial force whose career has produced a mixed bag of close calls (Stormy Monday), unwatchable dogs (Liebstraum, Mr. Jones) and one full-on winner (the supremely nasty cop drama Internal Affairs), Figgis has bounded back from the precipice of obscurity with the grimmest Vegas yuckfest in ages. Leaving Las Vegas finds Nicolas Cage -- speaking of Jerry Lewis -- giving yet another maniacally crafted Thanksgiving Day-parade float of a performance. A washed-up writer and booze-inhaling Hollywood hack, Cage's Ben is a battered composite of moral and physical decay: when he's not getting the wedding ring sucked off his finger by an agile hooker he's belching come-ons at hapless B-girls. It's a performance that stinks, in the best way: Cage throws so much sodden-breathed energy into his desire to drink himself to death -- despite the unlikely intervention of tawny Vegas escort Elisabeth Shue -- that you can virtually smell him in the theater. As obsessed with orality as Casino (in which the insufferable Pesci demands fellation from his conquests), Leaving Las Vegas actually has something to say -- about the comedy of tragic dissipation, about the futility of sustaining love in an economy of sexual graft, and about the energy of guerrilla filmmaking in the service of fresh ideas. It's a film that Scorsese, or any director still learning from Las Vegas, ought to give some serious thought to. Nervy and nervous, Leaving Las Vegas comes to the table with nothing but a will to win and a vision for renewing melodrama that makes of the Mirage Casino's artificial volcano and waterfall a veritable Trevi fountain. It's a vision that Bugsy Seigel, dead of too much desert dreaming with a lead slug in each of his eyes, would wanted to have seen.

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