Living in Las Vegas, Nevada can be a difficult thing for a movie lover like myself. Yes, there are megaplexes on every corner, but the city still lacks specialized venues for independent films. The occasional movie theater arranges a vacancy for a lauded title, but those theaters are usually occupied by loud senior citizens who clearly have no idea where they are at that particular moment in time. There is rarely a venue that brings together classics, documentaries, and shoestring budget masterpieces in one place so that true film lovers can "oh" and "aw" at the marvel of groundbreaking cinema. However, this changes every summer when the CineVegas Film Festival hits the Palms Hotel. After much anticipation, I devoted a full weekend to the screenings, parties, celebrities, and the Stella Artois beer.
(500) Days of Summer
Fox Searchlight has picked up this much-touted romance film that has made its rounds on the film festival circuit. Fortunately, it made a stop in Las Vegas. In attendance were director Marc Webb, writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. While on a tight schedule, I did have a chance to speak with Gordon-Levitt briefly before the screening who is probably one of the most cordial and down-to-earth guys working in the business right now.
The real treat here is this movie, which is slated for a release this summer. The film follows the romance of Tom (Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) through the 500 days of what may or may not be considered a romance. In fact, what is going on between these two young lovers is up in the air depending on if you ask the male or the female. Tom is a lovelorn, hopeless romantic who has always believed that one true love is out there for him. Summer, on the other hand, is a bit of a free spirit who does not know what she wants. Her wishy-washy nature of pursuing a passionate romance while simultaneously expressing a desire to "just be friends" puts Tom on a roller coaster of bipolar emotions through a period of 500 days. The film jumps out of chronological order through these days to more interestingly explore the relationship between these souls.
The hype surrounding this film is true in that it is an unconventional romance movie that males and females will want to see together. At times it is a romantic comedy, but the finished product as a whole is no such thing. The movie can be gut-wrenchingly true-to-life about the jerkiness of dating and finding the right one. Female viewers will come flocking for the romantic aspect alone while men will empathize with Tom as his heart is reinvigorated and dragged through the dust multiple times. In fact, it was actually amusing to hear the moans, groans, and "awwww"'s throughout the audience. Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel, both icons on the indie film circuit, are the perfect romantic leads. It is fresh to see two convincing characters not played by unrealistically hot celebrities. Although Deschanel is absolutely adorable at times so convincingly that I felt my heart crush along with Tom's. I truly do recommend this film when it hits theaters this summer and suggest that couples jump at the opportunity to see a romantic movie that offers a little something for both sexes.
Following the screening was a party in the Palms Pool area with live music. With Stella Artois and Grey Goose sponsoring the booze, I was ecstatic about the open bar. The party itself was a tad short as it concluded with free admission into Rain nightclub for every guest. It was quite a sight last year to see the shallow meat market crowd co-mingling with the artistic film festival crowd. In fact many of the film folk appeared tense and frightened. I decided to bypass the club this year. However, it is worth mentioning that an identical Jack Nicholson impersonator decided to attend the party and screw with people's heads, myself included. Dude, if you are reading this article, I commend you for your strategic mind trickery. If I resembled someone iconic, perhaps I too would attend parties and eat up the crowd's overexcited reactions. Yep, only in Vegas.
CineVegas devotes a portion of its screening schedule to a selection of films that are premiering at the festival for the first time. Easier with Practice had to have been my favorite selection amongst these debuts. The dramedy stars Brian Geraghty as a writer named Davey Mitchell who travels across New Mexico with his horndog brother (Kel O'Neil) promoting his new selection of short stories. While traveling, he becomes immersed in a phone sex relationship with a mysterious girl named Nicole. From hotel to hotel, Davey maturbatorily opens up to this stranger and the girl reciprocates these feelings. But what happens once Davey returns home and real life gets in the way? This question is especially difficult to deal with when gorgeous ex-fling Samantha (Marguerite Moreau) enters his life looking for a connection.
Easier with Practice is a very telling about dating, and the boundaries that have been broken with relationships. Davey has a relationship on the phone, which is a rarer thing than chat rooms and online dating. However, bringing in the voice better establishes this character's seductive persona. Davey faces the problem that a lot of young people face today, and that is deciding between fantasy and reality. Because of the world he creates with Nicole, Davey is more obsessed with the idea of meeting Nicole than he is with the given reality of dating Samantha.
Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez has directed quite a moving film that is edgy when it needs to be one moment and poignant the next. Brian Geraghty, better known for his work in Bobby and Jarhead gives an impressive turn as Davey. In fact, Alvarez and Geraghty collaborate well in a long, unbroken shot that follows Davey's first sexual encounter with Nicole over the telephone. It is one of those moments in film that is rarely pulled off so flawlessly, but is done so here thanks to the talent involved. I only hope that this film finds a distributor and makes a killing due to word-of-mouth. You hear that MovieWeb readers? Definitely watch for this one.
* Easier with Practice ended up taking home the Grand Jury Prize.
Yes, that infamous hit from Sundance will be making a splash in theaters this summer. Fortunately, I was able to catch this advanced screening at Cinevegas. Stars Joshua Leonard and Mark Duplass were also in attendance. The film follows Leonard and Duplass as college chums Andrew and Ben respectively. Ben has devoted himself to the married life while Andrew is still a wild child reliving his college days. When the two of them get drunk at a party, they agree to enter an amateur porn contest together. But what could possibly break boundaries as the Internet has pretty much done everything? The men decide that guy-on-guy straight man sex is the way to go. The only problem: going through with it. Using primarily improvised acting, the film revolves around the friends as they try to motivate themselves to do the deed and create closure with this sick dare.
This film is yet another winner at the festival, and I anticipate it finding an audience once it hits theaters this summer. Duplass and Leonard are friends in real life, so their chemistry as pals is very easy to recognize. When it comes down to the climax where Ben and Andrew are in a motel room with a camcorder, the results are outrageously cringe-worthy. In fact, it is rare to see this type of risque material speaking to everyone in the audience. Once again, I highly encourage anyone to see this movie. It was made in 10 days on a shoestring budget, and it would be a terrific thing if American audiences can embrace this comedy, make it a smash hit, and prove that the independent film world still has a pulse.
Yes, I was back for more partying and more chilled Stella Artois on tap. What was exciting about this experience wasn't so much the booze (although that was fun too), but the people coming together and mingling. I managed to spot Teller of duo Penn & Teller and Dennis Hopper, who serves as a coordinator for the festival. On top of this, I also had the opportunity to meet Danny Trejo, Joshua Leonard, and Practice star Brian Geraghty. However, the real treat had to have been the various sit-downs with American Movie subject Mark Borchardt. Just as he appears to be in the documentary, Borchardt is a loquacious and determined man who knows his film trivia inside out and is ready to take on his next filmmaking project. All these people in the same room at a film festival? Only in Vegas.
Here is yet another noteworthy entry in the festival that tackles the relevant subject of anti-aging. This is something that undeniably plagues American culture. I mean, for God's sake look at Prescilla Presley! There was once a time when aging and balding could be accepted as the beautiful process, but with the availability of Botox and plastic surgery, why would one settle for deterioration? Director Mitch McCabe makes this a personal documentary that stems from her own father being a plastic surgeon. McCabe does things Michael Moore-style as she makes it her personal mission to comprehend America's obsession with looking young. She herself even indulges in expensive anti-wrinkle creams along with pricey office treatments and Botox injections. She also interviews subjects who have invested thousands of dollars on making themselves look "pretty". This includes Sherry, a senior-aged woman who looks scarier and scarier with every dollar she spends, and Norman, a stocky man who decides he wants to invest thousands in resembling Jack Nicholson ( Yes, remember the Nicholson look-alike from the party? There you go.).
The film seems to have already been picked up by HBO Documentary, so I am assuming a cable premiere is in the cards. Director and narrator McCabe is a very charismatic and likable woman to guide the audience through the world of superficial beauty. She is a particularly great perspective to follow as she does not set out to attack the industry, but rather explore it. She even finds herself genuinely obsessed with the anti-aging offerings out there. The film is funny, insightful, and worth the time.
Just when I thought I was on a roll with the Cinevegas selections, things took a turn for the mediocre with Mercy. Scott Caan wrote, produced and stars in this slow-moving drama. Caan plays a hotshot writer who falls in love with a stunningly gorgeous magazine writer named Mercy. The narrative takes us to a "before" perspective when the two fall in love and an "after" perspective when Caan is beating himself up over their apparent separation. This culminates to the climax of what happened in between these moments in time, and anyone who knows romance cliches will see it coming a mile away.
Mercy is not a bad film. It seems to be a good effort and director Patrick Hoelck is a pro behind the camera. The film as a whole is simply dull and predictable. While I do appreciate Caan, I had a difficult time taking him seriously as a leading man. With his larger-than-life hair, thick chin, and short stature, it was difficult to see him woo Mercy into his arms. I was searching for depth between the lines, but I merely found myself wondering which film was next in the line-up. This one is probably worth passing up.
F (I give it a B if we are grading it as unintentional camp.)
Oh dear. This is where things get sticky. Godspeed was being marketed at the festival as a chilling, Alaskan-set thriller. Therefore, I was stoked to find a treasure of suspense. Wow, was I underwhelmed. The film follows Charlie Shepard (Joseph McKelheer) as a religious healer who goes through a personal tragedy. Years later, he is a bearded recluse and he is visited by a gorgeous red-headed stranger (Courtney Halverson). She reveals to Charlie that he once helped her ailing father and that her father requires some further faith healing. What Charlie fails to realize is that he is about to be thrown into a world of deadly religious fanaticism involving the girl's crazy-eyed brother Luke (Cory Knauf).
At first Godspeed caught my interest and had me engaged. I was expecting a slow and intelligent movie involving suspense and theology. However, mixing these two things together can really backfire as it does here. I will not say much about the events of this film because I do not want to give anything away, and it is not worth wasting the writing space. What I will say is that the film contains a rape scene that made everyone in the audience, including myself, laugh. Yes, that's right! The filmmakers successfully managed to make rape funny without even trying. That itself actually deserves an award. What it comes down to is that this film is an absolute mess with a screenplay in need of a major rewrite and a few amateur actors who need to tone down the theatrics. I really hate to give struggling indie movies a bad reputation, but opinions are what they are. This is probably one of the worst films I have ever seen, and I hope it finds its place in cult fandom.
World's Greatest Dad
The closing night film managed to be a treat as director Bobcat Goldthwait presented his latest directorial effort, World's Greatest Dad. Robin Williams stars as sad-sack English teacher Lance Clayton. While teaching his under-enrolled poetry class, he has true aspirations of being a famous novelist. But with his manuscripts being denied one after other, he begins to lose hope. To make matters worse, he is stuck raising his son Kyle (Daryl Sabara), a loud-mouthed and profane loner who enjoys auto-erotic asphyxiation, gross porn, and throwing profane slurs at his caring father. The film hits a pivotal point when Lance has a somewhat tragic experience that, in an weird way, ends up changing his life for the better. As expected from Goldthwait, the film turns into an underdog tale that has us rooting for Lance for all the wrong (and I really do mean "wrong") reasons.
Goldthwait is a comic writer who really likes his humor dark, and World's Greatest Dad is certainly no exception. Slated for release this summer, this is another film that I hope to see succeed. American audiences love to play things safe with comedy (Paul Blart), but they also like things on the raunchier side (The Hangover). With the star appeal of Robin Williams, I am really hoping this movie will find itself an audience. I had the chance to talk about the film with Goldthwait before and after the screening, and he explained that the film is really riding on the power of talk and word-of-mouth. I can honestly say that this movie tackles every aspect of comedy from laugh-out-loud moments to more subtle moments of smart scripting. The more I think about World's Greatest Dad the more I like it, and I certainly hope this word-of-mouth right now contributes to a healthy theatrical run for the film.
It amazes that in a city where culture is usually scarce that CineVegas has become such a prominent institution. Compared to last year, CineVegas has definitely blossomed into one of the heavy-hitters in the film festival line-up. It is at that point where it has surpassed underdog status, but has not yet reached the point of attracting the likes of Paris Hilton. In my opinion, that is the perfect place for a festival to be. It truly felt great to see so many films and have the opportunity to speak with writers, stars, and directors in such a casual atmosphere. I only look forward to the goods that will be delivered in 2010.