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April 28, 2022

Nic Cage comes home to his natural environment | The future's looking dark, say these book fest speakers | Pizzaiolo Michael Vakneen serves up a slice of his story

THE FIRST IMAGE onscreen in the new meta Nicolas Cage movie The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a scene from Cage’s 1997 film Con Air, featuring his character Cameron Poe reuniting with his wife and daughter following his harrowing ordeal aboard a hijacked flight full of dangerous criminals. This tender reunion, set to Trisha Yearwood’s rendition of “How Do I Live,” takes place in front of a wall of glittering Las Vegas lights — that’s because Con Air’s action-filled climax takes place in Vegas, where that hijacked plane famously clips the neck of the Hard Rock Hotel’s neon guitar sign.

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The way that the filmmakers of the ultimate self-referential Nicolas Cage movie choose to introduce Cage is with a clip of him in his natural environment: Las Vegas.

Cage has lived in Vegas for 17 years now, but even before he made his home here, he was making movies here, and Las Vegas and Cage have always seemed like the perfect fit. Over the years, he’s made five movies set at least partially in Vegas, amassing a body of work that covers a range of Sin City archetypes. With the release of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (right), it’s worth revisiting Cage’s Vegas oeuvre — and considering how the famously manic actor doesn't just reflect particular facets of Las Vegas, but also seems to embody certain strange, enduring truths about the city

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Cage first came to Vegas onscreen in 1992’s Honeymoon in Vegas, a goofy comedy starring Cage in one of his more subdued everyman roles. The plot hasn’t exactly aged well, with Cage’s neurotic private eye Jack Singer essentially gambling away his fiancée Betsy (Sarah Jessica Parker) in a poker game. She, of course, blames the town, where they’ve come to get married, for his mistake: “You brought me to Las Vegas and you turned me into a whore, Jack!”

Cage, however, fits in perfectly. Early in the movie, when Jack and Betsy arrive at Bally’s, he notices the convention of Elvis impersonators, commenting that he ought to get a jumpsuit like theirs. The best thing about Honeymoon in Vegas isn’t its vaguely misogynistic plot — with James Caan as the rich gambler creepily obsessed with Betsy — but its showcase of Vegas kitsch, including numerous Elvises. In the climax, Jack gets his wish to don an Elvis jumpsuit, when he joins the Flying Elvises skydiving team to parachute onto the Strip and reunite with Betsy. To hide from Caan’s Tommy Korman, she’s dressed as a showgirl, and the romantic reconciliation features two Vegas icons embracing.

Cage returned to Vegas for the much more serious Leaving Las Vegas (left) in 1995, in a role that won him an Oscar. As intense and depressing as Leaving Las Vegas can be, it still engages in plenty of Vegas mythologizing, from the playing cards on the wall in the down-and-out motel room where Cage’s Ben Sanderson initially checks in to drink himself to death, to the parade of neon lights that greet Ben when he drives into town, the ideal place for romanticized self-destruction.

The hopeless drunk is as much a stock Vegas character as the Elvis impersonator, and while Leaving Las Vegas doesn’t glamorize addiction, it does present it as part of the Vegas allure. Cage gets to apply some of his signature quirks to a desperate, sad character, and his excess as an actor complements the perceived excess of Vegas as a city. Elisabeth Shue’s Sera is another familiar representation of Vegas, the world-weary prostitute, and their doomed relationship is a personification of the way that Vegas can be both toxic and rejuvenating for people who can’t escape their vices.

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Cage spends much less onscreen time in Vegas in Con Air and in 2007’s Next, but both movies cement his cinematic connection to the city. Con Air doesn’t arrive in Vegas until its final 15 minutes or so, when the damaged plane has to make an emergency landing on the Strip. But in a movie full of outsize action set pieces, the Vegas segment goes even further over the top, from the destruction of the Hard Rock sign to a plane crash into the front of the Sands, which triggers a slot-machine jackpot. Con Air is a cheesy blockbuster spectacle, and Vegas gives it that extra boost. Cameron Poe is from Alabama, but for an ex-con looking for a new start, there’s no better place to end up than Las Vegas.

In Next, Cage starts out in Vegas, playing a small-time magician who goes by the name Frank Cadillac, performing for sparse audiences in a Downtown casino showroom. His real name is Cris Johnson, and he possesses the power to see two minutes into the future, which leads him away from Vegas and into an absurd, nonsensical plot to discover a rogue nuclear weapon and save the world. Next is easily the nadir of Cage’s Vegas filmography, but it finds him increasingly comfortable just grooving down Fremont Street, and an entire movie of Cage as Frank Cadillac, dirtbag Vegas magician, would have been far more welcome than this bombastic sci-fi garbage.

Cage’s most recent Vegas film is his best, although it’s the one that the fewest people are likely to have seen. By the time he made 2016’s The Trust (right), Cage was a longtime Vegas local, and he was in the phase of his career when he took nearly any part offered to him, in an effort to pay down his substantial debts. So The Trust is a no-frills direct-to-VOD production, with quite a few local Vegas actors in small roles. But it’s far more effective than most of Cage’s low-budget thrillers, with an honest representation of the grittier side of Vegas living. The opening aerial shot pans from the glitz of the Strip just across the road to an anonymous beige apartment complex, and that contrast captures something essential about Vegas life that everyone who lives here for longer than a few months understands.

Cage and Elijah Wood play a pair of evidence technicians working for the local police, who get no respect from their fellow officers and thus feel they have nothing to lose when they come up with a plan to break into a drug dealer’s highly fortified safe. The first half of the movie is an offbeat, darkly funny tour through Vegas seediness, from those generic apartments to local institution Pop’s Philly Steaks to the iconic Peppermill Lounge, where the main characters meet to plan their heist. “This place is freaking me out!” Wood’s David Waters exclaims as the Peppermill’s kaleidoscopic lighting overwhelms him.

The Trust shifts into a more grim, violent thriller in its heist-focused second half. But Cage still gets to be his oddball self, luxuriating in his grody mustache and making random gleeful outbursts. He could be Frank Cadillac, or Cameron Poe, or Ben Sanderson, or any other strange Vegas character you might pass on the street — but he’s always Nicolas Cage, and Vegas is always the place for him.

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"SOMETHING SHIFTED," author Imani Perry observed in response to a question about the summer of 2020, when a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd in plain view and sparked a global wave of protests. Perry’s vague but resonant comment came during a panel discussion on race in America, but it could have been said about a host of crises addressed at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books last weekend. LATFOB, as frequent participants call it, was an in-person event for the first time since 2019.

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The festival’s return to the University of Southern California campus brought smiles to thousands of faces, as readers young and old relished the opportunity to see, hear, and have books signed by their favorite authors, including prominent novelists such as Michael Connelly and Jonathan Franzen, and actors-turned-authors such as Valerie Bertinelli and Terry Crews. The event even attracted a handful of bookish Las Vegans.

But anxiety was the dominant theme among the journalists, historians, professors, politicians, and scientists invited to speak. U.S. democracy in peril. Structural racism. The opioid epidemic. Social media disinformation. Climate change. Global refugee crisis. The Russian invasion of Ukraine. These were the subjects of author talks and panel discussions.

One, titled New World Disorder, brought together several writers who have had front-row seats for the geopolitical splintering that has devastated millions of lives across the planet. Ben Rhodes, who served as a speechwriter and national security adviser for President Barack Obama, outlined three key developments that influenced our current predicament. Initially, globalization spread democracy, but the economy’s collapse triggered the rise of authoritarianism. Meanwhile, America’s intense focus on fighting terrorism after 9/11 undermined its credibility as a force for democratic values. “War is corrosive to democracy,” Rhodes said. And social media has created powerful ways to spread disinformation.

Journalist Matthieu Aikins noted that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was seen in some parts of the world the same way we view the Russian invasion of Ukraine today. “Are we on the right side of history?” Rhodes asked. “It’s not always clear.”

Sam Quinones, who has written two incisive books about the opioid crisis in America, lamented that “we’ve done so much to fragment ourselves” over the past 40 years. He said we need to “rethink addiction,” noting that fentanyl is very different from other hard drugs. The basic survival instinct is lost on a fentanyl addict, who would rather freeze to death in the streets, where he can get the drug, than voluntarily enter a rehab facility. “The old ideas don’t apply anymore,” he said.

Quinones prescribed a provocative method to deal with fentanyl addicts that flies in the face of conventional liberal wisdom. He said the only way to get these individuals the help they need is to arrest them and force them into treatment. “We need to use jail in a different way,” he said.

It’s challenging enough for writers to document the carnage and corruption, but they also must contend with the fact that almost half the country believes they are writing fiction. Carl Bernstein, the legendary reporter who, along with Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward, took down a president, offered no new solutions. He said journalists must continue to seek “the best obtainable version of the truth” and bemoaned young journalists’ tendency to believe Google is a substitute for going out into the street and talking to people.

Bernstein identified a glaring blind spot for the news media based in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. “So little reporting is done between the coasts,” he said. “We are not covering the culture of who we are as a people.”

He suggested another remedy for a news media increasingly isolated from readers and viewers. “We need more reporters who are dropouts,” he said, noting that he was a college dropout himself. “We need to be more reflective of the people in the country.”

The authors on a panel called “The End of the World as We Know It” were not nearly as cynical as the title suggested. While they discussed the specific environmental problems they researched for their books, they declined to traffic in the rhetoric of climate doomsayers.

Science journalist Michelle Nijhuis highlighted the story of the American bison. In the early 1700s, an estimated 20 to 30 million bison (aka buffalo) roamed North America. The mass hunting of bison in the 1800s almost caused their extinction, with barely 300 of them still breathing on the continent in 1900. But conservation measures by Native Americans and others have done much to restore the bison population, which is estimated at 500,000 today.

Nijhuis offered a quote from the legendary environmental writer Aldo Leopold that could apply to all the various trials and tribulations in the world today: “That the situation appears hopeless should not prevent us from doing our best.”

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WITH SO MANY big personalities and excellent pizza shops in Las Vegas, it might have been easy to overlook Michael Vakneen before last month. But after competing in The International Pizza Expo in March and placing second in the world and first in the United States in the non-traditional pizza division, he’s quickly become all the rage in the pizza community. 

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Vakneen, owner of Pop Up Pizza in The Plaza Hotel, has been one of the most skilled pizzaiolos in Las Vegas since that shop opened, so the acclaim is not only deserved, but overdue. We caught up with Vakneen, 39, after his victory to discuss his award-winning pie, the evolving Downtown scene, and some of his other projects.

Pop Up Pizza has now been around for a decade. How did that space come to be?
I was 29 when I opened Pop Up Pizza. I worked in commercial real estate and I knew the guys who were running The Plaza Hotel. I had my degree in hospitality and I always wanted to do something pizza-related. I took that old deli space they had on the casino floor. We scraped up a small budget and turned it into a little slice house.

It was a different kind of pizza place for Downtown back then. Did Pop Up have immediate success? From a public relations standpoint, it was wildly successful. Everybody was talking about us. Locals came and supported us. We were the first pizzeria Downtown to do an extended, fermented, New York-style dough. We raised the bar for pizza, we took it to a different level that I don't think was really ever happening Downtown. That was really exciting. To answer your question, it was successful.

How has Pop Up changed over the years?
I'm never complacent. I always like to evolve and change and add more techniques and different formulas to make the product better. We like evolve with what's going on with the world of pizza. Whereas when we opened we were just doing New York style, now we do not just New York style, but Sicilian specials, Detroit specials. We do Grandma pizzas on the regular. Some days we'll get a wild hair and do Neapolitan. We'll turn the ovens up and have fun.

You were also one of the first to do both vegan and gluten-free pizzas in Las Vegas.

We did it years ago. The vegan stayed on the menu. The gluten-free, we tested a little bit and it didn't get as much traction so it went away. Plus, being a pizzeria and being around so much flour, you get some people who are so sensitive to it, it's maybe a better decision not to do it. But the vegan one was definitely the first in town (that I know of) and we're still doing the same one today, just a little bit different dough formula.

How do you feel about what Downtown has become as opposed to when you first opened the pizzeria?
It's a totally different game. You’ve got world-class Italian food. You've got world-class barbecue. You've got unbelievable bars. It's really starting to become an incredible urban epicenter over on Main Street. Fremont East is always bringing fun stuff to the nightlife scene. I'm just excited about what the future has to offer.

What do you think the next wave of the Downtown scene will look like?
I think you might start to see more ethnic food. And you’ll start to see some higher-level dining experiences that we’ve never seen in the Downtown area but that you could find on The Strip.

Tell me about your pizza that won in the non-traditional category.
We did a pie infused with pistachios. It had raw pistachios that we actually hand-peeled to make a pistachio water. It turned the water light green, similar to what you find in gelato. We then took a pistachio concentrate that we bought from Italy and poured a little bit into the water. This created a beautiful perfume of pistachios. It's a beautiful thing to watch but a painful thing to make.

Where we thought we needed to be was with a very strong base. That was the cornerstone of all of this. That was the foundation. After that, we built on it. We celebrated the pistachio more. We put mortadella on the pie as our meat, as our fat, and that had pistachios in it. We used stracciatella. We fried mint. We made a beautiful citrus-basil pesto and we put fresh basil on as well. And we topped it with a candied pistachio brittle which was very textural. It was crunchy, it was sweet, it was salty and it gave you such a nice experience when you bit into that slice that you don’t expect. I think we caught a lot of people off guard with that, especially the judges.

We got first place in the United States and in the southwest region. That's the highest a Las Vegan has ever scored. On the international stage, we placed second in the world in the non-traditional category. We lost by .37 of a point. It’s got me inspired.

Can people eat the Pistachio Pie in town?
It’s very painstaking to make, but I will make it, and maybe what we’ll do is we'll have a night where we sell it and maybe we can donate all the proceeds to charity.

Tell me about your harissa line.
The Hamsa brand is a project that I started with my wife out of passion. We come from North African descent. Both our parents come from Casablanca. A lot of cultures use hot sauce in their food. We use harissa. Harissa is made traditionally with dried peppers, garlic, cumin, coriander, and it’s used as a condiment. My wife, Joanna, one night wanted to mix harissa with ketchup and make something that is squeezable. She did and then said, “I think we're on to something with this idea.” When we were closed with the pandemic, we were sort of twiddling our thumbs. We went into recipe development mode. We went through a lot of iterations of the recipe and created the first squeezable harissa hot sauce and marinade product. We're going to disrupt the market. In May, we'll have product back on the shelves of stores again.

What’s next for you as a pizzaiolo?
The next step is to just focus on being better and developing myself to a point where I can help more people and maybe I'll get to a point where I stop competing and I can give back. That's really where I want to be. I'm looking forward to giving back in a much bigger way in the future.

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Photos and art: Nicolas Cage: Lionsgate; movie screenshots: Castle Rock Entertainment, Highland Film Group, Saturn Films, and Highland Film Group; Bookfest: courtesy L.A. Times; Michael Vakneen: Christopher Smith

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