Cinevegas #11- Wrap Report – June 10-15, 2009

 2009 CINEVEGAS

Cinevegas#11 maintained its legacy for showcasing experimental, cutting-edge cinema with a leaner and more compact festival this year than ever before. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde “brevity is the essence of wit” and the new six day model was in keeping with the tight recessionary economy facing the U.S. today. Cinevegas was replete with many surprises including some remarkably good Jackpot Premieres, heartfelt tributes and ruckus party-going.  It was another successful endeavor.

TOP FIVE(+1) AT CINEVEGAS 11

1. The Revenant

2. Daylight

3. * Easier With Practice

3. * Winnebago Man

4. All In – The Poker Movie

5. Godspeed

* Tied for 3rd place

The Opening Night Film: Saint John of Las Vegas **

SAINT JOHN OF LAS VEGAS

The world premiere of Hue Rhodes’ “Saint John of Las Vegas,” starring Steve Buscemi, Sarah Silverman, Romany Malco, Peter Dinklage, Tim Blake Nelson, John Cho and Emmanuelle Chriqui opened the 11th Cinevegas Film Festival. The movie tells the story of an insurance investigator, played idiosyncratically by Buscemi, who travels from Albuquerque to Sin City is somewhat amusing for its first two acts, but a semi-coherent third act leaves the viewer with an ending that just does not add up. While not the home-run we were all rooting for to kick off the festival, it still had enough spirit to get the ball rolling.

THE JACKPOT PREMIERES

This is the main competition category for narrative feature films which are deemed world premieres. This is the highest profile category and is given the most attention by the film world. Cinevegas 11 displayed a number  of compelling and engaging features.

Easier with Practice **1/2

EASIER WITH PRACTICE

Writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s dramedy won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at Cinevegas 11. Adapted from Davy Rothbart’s autobiographical GQ magazine article “What Are You Wearing?” “Easier With Practice” follows a neurotic 28-year-old named Davy Mitchell (Brian Geraghty, “The Hurt Locker”), a short-story author.  Davy becomes obsessed with a phone sex charade he plays out with a voice identified as “Nicole”over and over again. The pic relies on this phone sex scenario for far too long and the pay off climax renders a disingenuous feeling with a denouement leaving more questions than answers. On the plus side, Brian Geraghty’s performance is a revelation and this role should catapult him to the front ranks of the up and coming. The wonderfully gifted cinematographer David Morrison ( “Stephanie Daley”) shot the film on the Red camera and his visual style helped render the narrative in service to the story.

Godspeed ***

GODSPEED

Director –writer Robert Saitzyk collaborated on the script with actors/exec producers Joseph McKelheer and Cory Knauf. The resulting film was awarded a Special Jury Prize for Exceptional Artistic Achievement at Cinevegas 11. “Godspeed”, set in the rugged beauty of Alaska, is a poignant story which connects with its audience by marrying religious extremism, retribution and murder in a fast paced thriller that picks you up and won’t let you down to its final frames.  Focusing on a zealot named Luke, a Svengali-like character, whose magnetic personality swallows up the young and speeds them away on an existential journey to hell in a film which is unique in style and execution.   

Daylight ***1/2

DAYLIGHT

Director and writer David Barker, a student of the legendary Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin, has created a tense psychological thriller in this riveting film. Although comparisons to “Funny Games” will be considered, Barker’s story has personal and intimate details which bend its genre in unique ways. Alexandra Meierhans, who co-wrote the script, plays the pregnant Irene with sensitivity to her body and the evil that surrounds her.  Barker’s film will keep you on edge and contemplative till the very end. A meticulously crafted and satisfying experience which you will feel was worth it.

Etienne! *1/2

ETIENNE!

Writer-director Jeff Mizushima was awarded Filmmaker To Watch for Etienne!, a road trip comedy about a young guy named Richard and his dying pet hamster. There are some worthy attributes to the storytelling including the love and freedom of animals, but more often than not this one comes up short and for a good reason. It started out as a short student film and never made the transition to long form very effectively. It is ultimately a self indulgent vanity project which more often than not misses the mark.

Mercy **1/2

MERCY

Producer-screenwriter Scott Caan, son of superstar James Caan, makes a modest but agreeable “boy loses girl” film. Taking the title from the lady that steals his heart, the film tells the story of Johnny Ryan(Scott Caan) a novelist who becomes entangled with a literary agent. The film’s biggest flaw is actor Scott Caan’s inability to convey this devastation in an emotionally convincing manner. He needs to take some acting lessons from his father. Patrick Hoelck, a music video veteran directing his first feature, comes up with a flawed effort that convincingly captures the literary milieu but is lackluster in conveying human foibles.

Redland **1/2

REDLAND

Out of USC film school for about four years, writer-director Asiel Norton’s debut feature certainly is adventurous. Its story takes place during the Great Depression in an isolated mountain home. The family depicted is living below the poverty level and barely surviving on a subsistence diet. Add to this ignominious life style, a teenage girl whose sexual dalliance with a neighbor creates family tension and consequences that reach a breaking point and you have an idea of the milieu that the viewer is enveloped in. With a fantasy veil look that is painterly in texture from the talented DP, Zoran Popovic you have all the ingredients of a great film, and, yet it doesn’t  coalesce narratively. Reminding many of the work of the great Terrence Malick‘s “Days of Heaven” ,  Redlands’  flaw is not enough character development and an engaging story flow. One can admire this as a flawed experimental feature from a director/ DP team whose potential for a great film is looming just around the corner. 

PIONEER DOCUMENTARIES

This is a competitive section for documentaries that explore new territory and world perceptions. It is essentially the independent documentary competition at Cinevegas 11.

All-In-The Poker Movie ****

ALL-IN THE POKER MOVIE

Writer/Director Douglas Tirola’s documentary  tells the story of poker focusing on why one of our nation’s oldest games has had a renaissance in the past few years and why for so many poker is the way to chase the American Dream. It fittingly enough won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at Cinevegas in the heart of America’s gambling capital-Las Vegas. This meticulously crafted and engaging film is based around 100 talking heads and actually works! Among the characters  we meet players, executives, writers, Matt Damon, NPR’s Ira Glass, Evander Holyfield  and many others.  The final act of the film focuses on the amazing story of Tennessean Chris Moneymaker and how he turned $40 into millions-a true Horatio Alger story. The judges were right on the money awarding this one top prize!

Beautiful Darling *** {Work-In-Progress}

BEAUTIFUL DARLING

Director-writer James Raisin’s film was billed as a work-in-progress(WIP) and from what hits the screen he’s down a remarkable job in piecing together the fragments of the tortured existence of Warhol Superstar Candy Darling (aka James Slattery).  A regular at The Factory, Candy was a feature in the Off-Broadway scene and actress in Warhol films such as “Women in Revolt” and “Flesh”.  The film has unearthed some remarkable archival footage including a visit to Candy’s childhood home in Massapequa, New York , insightful interviews from members of the Factory,  the great playwright Tennessee Williams and filmmaker John “Pope of Trash” Waters. The music choices, including Lou Reed’s evocative hit “Walk on the Wild Side” adds fervor to the transgender quagmire that once was Candy Darling. Hopefully Raisin will secure all that he needs to release this one to the world.

It Came From Kuchar ***

IT CAME FROM KUCHAR

Director-writer Jennifer Kroot’s documentary portrait of underground filmmakers Mike and George Kuchar is a straightforward and workman-like achievement.  The film reveals how the Kuchars developed a style of facsimile Hollywood moviemaking.  Teen- age and unknown, they began producing in the Bronx 8mm parodies of the movies they saw three and four times in their neighborhood theatres.  Comprehensive in its scope, the film explores the oeuvre and personalities of these idiosyncratic filmmakers.   Their films reveal an innate grasp of Hollywood movie artifice, and, for the most part, are grotesquely violent and naïve fantasies that star neighbors and friends in real Bronx locations.  Kroot presents clips from their most famous films including “Hold Me While I’m Naked” and the unforgettable mix of robots and over-ripe women entitled “Sins of the Fleshapoids”. Her film also includes comments from admirers like John Waters and an awards ceremony at Telluride. Maverick, rebel and marching to the beat of a different drummer, Kroot’s documentary, while not ground-breaking in style, helps us understand a much slighted  period of indie American film history.  Cinevegas honored the Kuchar Brothers with their Vanguard Directors Award.

Winnebago Man ****

WINNEBAGO MAN

Director-writer Ben Steinbauer with writer Malcolm Pullinger hunt down the expletive-spewing Jack Rebney- star of a twenty year- old Winnebago sales video and come up with a Michael Moore style muckraker which will laugh you silly.  The four-minute assemblage of outtakes prepared by Rebney’s amused crew are the impetus for this film and  find him cursing an eloquent blue streak as he flubs lines and kills  flies. Legend holds that director Spike Jonze  distributed dubs of these outtakes to friends, and since then it was uploaded in 2005, becoming an internet phenomenon. It won the documentary prize at The Sarasota Film Festival and walks away from Cinevegas 11 with the Audience Award for Best Documentary.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo ***

BEETLE QUEEN CONQUERS TOKYO

Writer-director Jessica Oreck’s meditation on Japan’s fascination with insects was awarded a Special Documentary Jury Prize for Artistic Vision.

SURE BETS

Trevor Groth, who is now the director of The Sundance Film Festival and Cinevegas’ artistic director, has basically moved some of the most high profile Sundance narrative films( “500 Days of Summer”, “Adam”, “Moon”, “Bronson”, “Humpday”, “Headless Woman”, Black Dynamite”, World’s Greatest Dad”)  that are getting distribution to this section.  We, at FFT, have reviewed the vast majority of these in our comprehensive Sundance coverage. One film of distinction, “In the Loop”, we didn’t review at Sundance 09 is reviewed here by guest Vegas critic MICK TORNEY.

In The Loop ****

IN THE LOOP

A bumbling junior minister in the British government breaks loose from his handlers, accidentally ignites rumors of war and sets off a cascade of scandal and controversy that engulfs the American government and his own. His efforts at repair make everything worse and he is devoured in committee, and, in private, by the alpha males and females whose habitat is government in London or D.C. The lead wolf (sharply captured by Peter Capaldi) is a sewer-mouthed Scot who shepherds the British cabinet flock like a pit bull and his dark, furious energy is one of the many savage delights of this brilliant satire. Not just for political junkies but for all who love to see the mighty laid low, this wickedly funny film by director Armando Iannucci is the best depiction yet of the sorry mess of the last eight years.

DIAMOND DISCOVERIES

This section of Cinevegas identifies what is billed as “the best new independent films available for United States distribution.  Unfortunately, the ones I sampled will have a tough time getting picked up at all.  Wenders might make distribution based on his long standing reputation as an auteur.

Palermo Shooting **

PALERMO SHOOTING

Legendary director Wim Wenders’ first European-set narrative film in 14 years is a boring and pretentious film.  Borrowing the filmic metaphors, but not the storytelling chops, of Bergman, we follow Finn (played by German pop icon Campino) an art photographer who dialogues with Death, portrayed by a hooded Dennis Hopper.  Finn is journeying from Dusseldorff to Palermo.  Along the way we observe some beautiful scenery and hear 28 pop songs many of which are outstanding.  I wish I could say the same thing about this film, but alas, I can not. 

Vegas Based on a True Story *1/2

VEGAS: BASED ON A TRUE STORY

Iranian writer-director Amir Naderi’s minimalist feature is flawed by a script that really wasn’t ready to be lensed.  Telling a story about a blue collar family with a gambling problem set in the suburbs of Sin City whose house might have a crime gang’s suitcase buried in their front yard needed a good third act.  We watch the family of husband, wife and 12-year old son dig up their whole lawn for 50 of the 100 minute film. Naderi’s story would have made a great short, but there was never enough there for a fully realized feature.

AREA 52

Area 51 is a nickname for a military base that is located in the southern portion of Nevada (83 miles north-northwest of downtown Las Vegas). Area 52, a number- play by the folks at Cinevegas, is billed as “an underground collection of cult and Midnight Movies for the most hardcore fans”. In the past this category has usually come up short.  This year, however, it finally hit its stride with one of the best new films of this festival.

The Revenant ****

THE REVENANT

Writer/Director Kerry Prior has updated the Vampire/Zombie film for the 21st Century and it is one of the boldest attempts yet to re-write this saga in a long time.  Winning The Dramatic Audience Award at Cinevegas, this clever film tells the story of Bart Gregory (David Anders) a Marine killed in the line of duty who comes back from the grave to hang out with his best buddy Joey (Chris Wylde). Soon Bart is drinking blood for survival, but director Prior cleverly dissects and updates the story allowing vampire Bart to spew expletives and fight street vermin (pushers, thieves, murderers) like a super hero. The buddy concept takes the edge off the horror and brings life to the humor.  As one Zompire audience member said “we just rented the top 10 horror films of 2008, and this one just kicked all their asses”.   Kerry Prior’s engaging and entertaining film is destined for Midnight movies and cult film status.

NEVADA FILMMAKING

This is the category billed as “films produced in Nevada or made by local filmmakers.”

Since Nevada’s most prominent film program is at The University of Nevada, Las Vegas under Chairman and filmmaker Francisco Menendez, it should come as no surprise that this year’s most significant Nevada film comes from that institution.

Thor At The Bus Stop **

THOR AT THE BUS STOP

Writer/directors and UNLV Film alumni Mike and Jerry Thompson’s first feature is derived from a pair of their short films and results in a somewhat flawed affair.  Telling a series of quirky tales, which have their funny moments, the film quickly devolves into a series of sketches in search of a coherent story  With characters like White Trash Chuck and a guy walking around impaled by a yield sign, we get a sense of an existential world which shows flurries of magical fantasy.  One positive note was that the soundtrack provided by Nevada bands A Crowd of Small Adventures and Hungry Cloud added nicely to the film’s tone. The titular Thor, the Nurse God of Lightning, played by director Jerry Thompson wanders around suburban Las Vegas in hopes of saving the world.  Unfortunately he can’t even save this movie. 

Marquee Award: John Voight

JOHN VOIGHT

Jonathan Vincent “Jon” Voight’s long and distinguished career as a character actor was honored at Cinevegas 11 with their most prestigious award The Marquee.  . He came to prominence at the end of the sixties, with a performance forty years ago as a would-be hustler in 1969’s Best Picture winner, Midnight Cowboy, for which he earned his first Academy Award nomination. Throughout the following decades, Voight built his reputation with an array of challenging roles and has appeared in such landmark films as 1972’s Deliverance, and 1978’s Coming Home, for which he received an Academy Award for Best Actor. He was honored with a live conversation and a rare screening of the cult classic which he co-wrote and starred in, entitled “Lookin’ To Get Out” which was directed by the late Hal Ashby.

Vanguard Actor Award: Willem Dafoe

WILLEM DAFOE

William “Willem” Dafoe was honored at Cinevegas 11 with the Vanguard Actor Award. He was interviewed by NPR film critic Elvis Mitchell prior to the screening of his first starring film role in Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery’s 1982 cult classic of the motorcycle milieu called “The Loveless”. Dafoe is  best known for his roles in To Live and Die in L.A., Platoon, The Last Temptation of Christ, Shadow of the Vampire, Mississippi Burning, The Boondock Saints, American Psycho, Light Sleeper and the Spider-Man films.  When asked by Mitchell about acting in Paul Schrader’s classic Light Sleeper, Dafoe said that if the breaks in his life had not come the way they did he might have ended up a drug dealer like the protagonist of that film.  He also said he considers himself “a performer rather than an actor”.  He said also that it was important when performing “to disappear into the simplicity of a gesture”.  Lastly, he added that “when you’re working everyday you get into the depths of a character”.

Concluding Thoughts

Cinevegas 11 was a successful venture and exposed the world to some new and exciting films.  The party scene was more minimal than in the past due to the hard economic times. Parties at past Cinevegas outings had lots of food and in some cases were held at huge venues like Green Valley Ranch.  But, the spirit of cutting edge cinema and the camaraderie shown at CVHQ was welcoming and warm, and, even with the shorter six day schedule, Cinevegas still retains a personality unlike any other film festival in America!  I look forward to Cinevegas 12 next year!

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