It has been an eventful week in the middle of the desert at the CineVegas Film Festival. After days of downing complimentary glasses of Stella Artois beer, seeing a variety of films, and shaking hands with familiar faces (I'm talking about you Dennis Hopper), the event has finally come to an end. I was able to take in a few more events at the festival that break down like so.

Visioneers

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It is difficult to explain what this film is exactly about. At the beginning of the festival, I saw the film Your Name Here which was a confusing picture that left me feeling cheated. Then there is a movie such as Visioneers that is just as confusing, yet left me feeling satisfied. Director and writer Jared and Brandon Drake were on hand for a Q and A afterwards that I could unfortunately not attend due to time constraints.

Comedian Zach Galifianakis plays a corporate drone named George Washington Winsterhammerman. He works for a major company known as the Jeffers Corporation that pays close attention to workplace hierarchy. Employees from the level up send down work for him to process through a system of air tight tubes. Life at home is not any less robotic as his wife Michelle (Judy Greer) sits at home worshiping a daytime talk show host (Missi Pyle)'s obsession with a self help book that presents steps to living a better life. Meanwhile, George's loser brother Julieen (James LeGros) has settled in George's backyard where he has taken up pole vaulting and attracted a commune of fun-loving hippies. Did I happen to mention that there is an epidemic of people exploding because of stress?

Visioneers is by no means a film that I would consider a classic, but it is a strange film unlike anything that usually hits theaters. This is the type of movie that film festival attendees should be seeking out. There is definitely a message here, but it is camouflaged in its eccentricities. Rather than feeling frustrated, I was pulled into this film wanting to know more about its kooky world. While I cannot speak for the filmmakers, I cannot help but assume that they are fans of satirical science fiction writers such as Kurt Vonnegut. In fact, the film is strikingly similar to Vonnegut's story Harrison Bergeron, which follows a dystopic world where people are forced to feel only a sense of empty happiness. Characters in this film are forced to wear equalizer devices that control emotions and prevent the frequent occurrence of human explosion.

Zack Galifianakis is probably one of the most redeeming qualities of this film as the male lead. Some may be familiar with his odd sense of humor in stand up comedy. When I have seen him in film or television, he tends to play that wise-cracking sidekick character. I never had him pegged as someone who could carry the weight of a film, but he actually can. While virtually every actor here is hamming it up or overacting to an extent, Galifianakis is anchored as that straight man who is conflicted in this mind-numbing world. Films such as this are seen at festivals because they do not appeal to mainstream crowds, and I hope this positive press encourages cinephiles to seek out this film.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Movie PictureThe next title is one that has been making the rounds on the film festival circuit and is already slated for a theatrical release from Magnolia Films. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson really needs no introduction. Director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Darkside) has directed this documentary to tell the story of the oddball gonzo journalist. The theater was packed full of people who were quite different from other audiences I noticed at prior screenings. Rather than seeing film aficionados, I noticed people about the age of my parents who looked as though they had done a fair amount of hallucinogens in their past. At that point I realized the film was not attracting so much of a film following as it was a Hunter S. Thompson following. Being one who is familiar with Thompson, but not fully acquainted with his life's work, I was hungry to understand the complexities of Thompson's life and career. However, Gibney's documentary is sometimes too much information with too little learned.

The film touches briefly on Thompson's origin story and segues more into his career, which is the centralized focus. We begin with his initial writing project where he ran with the infamous biker gang the Hell's Angels, and later wrote a book about his experience. It is this part of Thompson's life that is the most intriguing and really puts the documentary in motion. Thompson then went on to run for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado and to do lots and lots of drugs. This is more where the film slowed down for me. There are a lot of references and scenes from Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to emphasize the whacked-out state that Thompson reached once he started taking things to the edge with virtually every drug known to man. However, his bizarre behavior did give way to gonzo journalism, a form of writing that blurred the line between what was fact and what was fiction.

Alex Gibney has thus far been a filmmaker I've kept my eye on. In a Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, he took a subject of density and made it assessable to anyone who was wondering what the heck happened with the Enron scandal. However, Gonzo is a homage to Hunter Thompson that dwelled on the subject a little too long for my taste. I am sure this had a lot to do with me being not so enamored with Thompson in the first place. In fact I want to make it very clear that my negative criticism is not telling people to not see this movie. There is a built-in audience for this film and it is for those who fully grasp and admire what Hunter S. Thompson did for journalism. While I do understand the uniqueness he brought to the writing world, I sometimes found the film's high admiration for his reckless behavior to be somewhat puzzling. And at a run time of two hours, I felt I got to know Thompson a little too well. My beef with the film does not at all fault Gibney's credibility. The film is very well done, but will be enjoyed much more by those who already appreciate the life's work of Thompson (such as Johnny Depp who narrates the film).

Rating: 3 out of 5

Conversations

Conversations is not a film, but rather a series of interviews that CineVegas holds with some of its honorees. Some of the interviewees of the series this year included Don Cheadle, Viggo Mortensen, and Rosario Dawson. With my schedule, I was able to sit in on pieces with Sam Rockwell and Angelica Huston.

Sam Rockwell is pretty much the kind of guy I had hoped to listen to for a full hour. Elvis Mitchell sat on a sofa with the actor for some discussion. As he does on his stupendous weekly radio show The Treatment, Mitchell knows how to get actors talking without a note card in hand. Rockwell mostly touched upon his choice of characters, and how most of his character choices have been wacky and over-the-top. However, he took a detour from that in films such as Joshua and Snow Angels. He also proved to be quite the cut-up doing a pitch perfect impersonation of Christopher Walken for the spectators. Rockwell also had positive things to say about his experience on Matchstick Men in which he and Nicholas Cage were given the opportunity to improvise a lot much to the blessing of director Ridley Scott. This came as a surprise to Mitchell who referred to Scott as not the usual actor's director. The entire conversation with Rockwell pretty much solidified my thoughts about the actor. He is a non-glamorous kind of guy who really knows how to get into his roles for the sake of laughter or drama.

The conversation with Angelica Huston was a bit more puzzling. It is really difficult to best describe the session without seeming disrespectful, but I am going to go ahead with it anyway. The conversation was moderated by former New Yorker critic Lillian Ross. The choice is fitting as Ross was very close with Angelica's father John Huston. However, as expected, her age (Ross is 81) and slow delivery kind of put a damper on things. The first 15 minutes of the hour were more of a monologue as Ross rambled on about the good old days while forgetting that the conversation was supposed to focus on Angelica Huston. She even launched into a long monologue about Jack Nicholson. Finally Ross did get around to discussing with Huston her directing projects, Bastard out of Carolina and Agnes Browne. Before I knew it, the time was up. While I do respect the appearance of critic Lillian Ross, I yearned so much for Elvis Mitchell to jump on stage and cover all of the territory that he covered with Rockwell. Unfortunately, there was little discussion about The Grifters or Wes Anderson. I think that Ross herself needed a separate hour-long tribute to cover the things that SHE wanted to talk about.

The Great Buck Howard

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The entire festival came to a close with the screening of The Great Buck Howard. Unlike many of the films that I did see, this one has a definite mainstream appeal. In fact, it is already bought by Magnolia and slated for a fall release. The film stars John Malkovich as the title character. Buck is a mentalist who has appeared numerous times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and has since disappeared off the map. This is when Troy (Colin Hanks) enters the picture. Troy is a former law student looking for something better in the entertainment industry. He is brought on board to travel with Buck from venue to venue in smaller cities, and make sure his acts go smoothly. Buck's objective is to make a comeback and make the world wonder why they even forgot about him. Of course, Buck turns out to be quite the difficult diva to handle, as Troy finds out.

The Great Buck Howard was a choice film to end the festival. I very much enjoyed this comedy/drama that has just the correct balance of both. As expected, John Malkovich really chews up the scenery and owns this movie. Based on the Amazing Kreskin, Buck is a flamboyant and showy man who takes pride in his corny shows that involve hypnosis, mind-reading, and taking a brief moment to croon slowly on the piano. I think it is a treat in itself to see a seriously theatrical talent such as Malkovich really have fun with a role, just as he did poking fun at himself in Being John Malkovich. There is enjoyable supporting talent from Hanks, Ricky Jay, Emily Blunt, and producer Tom Hanks playing father to his real life son in the story. However, the show is truly owned by Malkovich who takes hold of the audience's emotions every time he is on the screen. Sometimes we love and laugh at his eccentricities and sometimes he plays things rather dickish. The film serves as a reminder that, while there are glamorous types dominating Hollywood, there are actors like Malkovich doing smaller projects such as this and really giving it their best. I really enjoyed this movie, and I do think there is a mainstream appeal that audiences will appreciate. If this doesn't receive a very wide release, it should definitely be seeked out

Rating: 4 out of 5

I went to CineVegas expecting somewhat of a minor festival and was pleasantly surprised by what a great shindig it really is. In its tenth year, the festival brought together an eclectic selection of long-runs, premieres, Mexican cinema, experimental fare, and short films. There was a sense of warmth as I watched filmmakers, press, and stars mingling together to discuss their works. I feel as though this is a festival on its way to the top in the way that it really gives struggling filmmakers a strong platform. I have nothing to do at this point but look forward to CineVegas in its 11th year and hope to find more buried treasure.