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CineVegas 2008 - 10 Films To Put On Your Schedule

by Erik Childress

It started back in March in Austin. After six years of covering film festivals, a new feature was born in “10 To See…” previewing an upcoming cinema celebration and giving YOU the festival seeker an advanced look at recommendations from yours truly. Normally the routine is I go, you tune into Nick Digilio’s show on WGN Radio Chicago to hear my live reports or come to this very website to see reviews after the fact, only to come out the other side going “Damn, I wish I was there to see those movies.” Well here’s your chance. It’s not too late to book your trip to the CineVegas Film Festival, celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2008. And if you’re already eagerly anticipating your arrival, touching down at night to see the magnificent and unmistakable lights of the cityscape with your tickets or Royal Flush passes in hand, allow me to guide you towards a selection of titles that my eyes have already gazed upon as I hope to make your CineVegas experience all the more worthwhile.

45 films including premieres of anticipated summer titles like The Rocker (the opening night selection) and the quite funny Get Smart (screening to support Dwayne Johnson’s Rock Foundation for children) will be spread out liberally over ten days of parties and tributes giving festival goers an ample opportunity to jam up their schedule in-between watching the Chicago Cubs kick some ass. Or maybe that’s just my schedule. MY schedule, indeed, at any film festival from Sundance to SXSW to Toronto to CineVegas, usually allows (and depends on) seeing an average of 30 features. While baffling (and potentially headache-inducing) to the casual filmgoer, that’s my commitment to each festival and each filmmaker out there. And at CineVegas, despite my continued wish that they would expand its lineup (by another 15 films or so), I have a chance to see just about every film on the docket in person, through screeners and from what I’ve already caught at other fests or local screenings. Without revealing what I have yet to see (in fairness to those whose features were scrambling in late post amongst other reasons), here is my list of ten films (in ABC order) you are going to want to schedule some time for.

Director/Writer: Clark Gregg
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly Macdonald, Brad William Henke, Bijou Phillips, Clark Gregg

Yes, this film was also a part of my 10 Films To See at South by Southwest. But if you weren’t there or at Sundance were I first saw it, then that recommendation back in March was a mere tease until it opened theatrically in August. Now, it’s been pushed back until Sept. 26 (as of this scribbling) and you can still get a three-month headstart by catching it at CineVegas. Unlike most of the films this year, Choke is only getting a solo screening, so I guarantee you its going to be a hot ticket. Stars Anjelica Huston (honored with this year’s Marquee Award) and Sam Rockwell (receiving a Half-Life Award) will be in attendance at the honoree’s reception the very evening of the screening which, if your pass allows, you can head on over to at Planet Hollywood after 87 minutes of Chuck Palanhiuk goodness. Cautious viewers only passively familiar with Palanhiuk’s work (which includes the greatness of Fight Club) may not want to go in cold, so you can read my full review from Sundance HERE before deciding to purchase that ticket. It’s odd, it’s sexual and even borderline sacrilegious – but also very rewarding if you stick with it.

Friday, June 20 – 6:30 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres

Director/Writer: Mark Webber
Starring: Lou Taylor Pucci, Paul Dano, Rosario Dawson, Naomie Harris, Tariq Trotter, Frankie Shaw, Francisco Burgos

Mark Webber has put some distance between his starring role in the kids film, Snow Day, taking roles in a number of indie flicks and, now, making his directorial debut based partially on his own experiences growing up on the streets of Philadelphia. Tangling multiple story threads from the corners of one broken down neighborhood, it’s clear from the opening credits of shredded homes and ghost town-like milieu that Webber has something to say – and he says it quite well. Economics is the overriding character of the film, but along the way we’ll meet a kid (Martin Cepeda) from a divorced family who takes his father’s advice to heart in trying to hook up with girls. There’s the health-conscious dad (Tariq Trotter) trying to instill that knowledge in his son while hoping to open up a similar consciousness to the neighborhood with the store even while his wife (Naomie Harris) is a casual pot smoker. A young drug dealer has a tempestuous relationship with a client (Frankie Shaw), usually when the high goes away and all that’s left is just them. And a struggling mother (Rosario Dawson) has a little angel of a boy (Francisco Burgos) who is an overriding ray of hope in a world that would rather beat them down.

In a nice change of pace, Webber has found ways to connect these characters in spirit and commonalities instead of merely having them crash into one another Haggis-style. Sometimes the parallel is direct, such as a long of dialogue or situation shared into the very next edit. Other times it’s relaxed and clicks in seemingly unrelated (and unforced) ways that extrapolate the anger that is seething beneath much of the film. It all explodes into a final scene that is a bit too over-the-top for the casualness to which Webber makes his point perfectly for 80 minutes without marching a sign down the street. It’s an unnecessary explanation point dramatically (that does finally unite everyone) but an understandable one that will likely be forgiven after its heartwrenching apex. Performances are solid up and down, (including Paul Dano who pops up as a suicidal artist that becomes a father figure to Dawson’s boy), and everyone will pick their favorite and least favorite story strand, but it will be the work by young Francisco Burgos that ultimately unites the audience. His natural performance is a reminder of the never-old wisdom that children never judge and always see the best in people. Explicit Ills deals with unromantic issues, but instead of wallowing in it, desperately tries to find that happy ending or at least offer hope for one – as long as we’re all in search of it together.

Thursday, June 19 – 6:30 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres
Saturday, June 21 – 4:30 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres

Director/Writer: Sean McGinly
Starring: John Malkovich, Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn, Tom Hanks, Griffin Dunne

Another Sundance favorite this year gets a second go-round, this time promoted to the closing night film of CineVegas’ 10th Anniversary. John Malkovich stars as the titular performer, a “mentalist” from the bygone era of Vegas and variety shows. Although don’t tell him I said that. Colin Hanks plays Troy Gable, a young man who disappoints dad (played by one Tom Hanks) when he decides to forego law school in search of the entertainment industry. His first step is to answer a personal ad seeking a celebrity assistant. He’s never heard of Buck Howard and, based on the final moments of his previous handler, isn’t sure he’s the right match for Buck’s incessant ego and sense of entitlement. Buck’s planning a big comeback though based around a mass scale hypnosis and when a publicist (Emily Blunt) is sent in to help manufacture it, Troy decides to stick it out a little longer (wouldn’t you?) and finds himself wanting to believe in a little magic for a change.

The diva-protégé relationship is not a stretch for material, particularly if you’ve seen Swimming with Sharks or its feminine counterpart, The Devil Wears Prada (also with the lovely Emily Blunt.) But writer/director Sean McGinly doesn’t just string together a series of complaints and confrontations (although there are plenty.) Instead he finds ways to pity Buck Howard and his declining relevance. Malkovich, who has a history of either severely overplaying or underplaying his roles (more often than not to entertaining effect) gives one of his best performances here; a role that offers him the best of his both worlds. His tantrums and demands are funny enough to not make us hate him too much and as he dawns upon the present, we empathize and put ourselves into Troy’s shoes and root for one last bit of amazement. It’s a nice way for CineVegas to end its festival, providing audiences with one last good feeling before heading home on Sunday the 22nd.

Saturday, June 21 – 7:00 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres

Directors: Paul Eagleston & Stephen Rose
Starring: Ryan Avery, Emily Spetrino-Murtagh, Andrew Jemsek, Tristan Jemsek, Wayne Michael Reich

Hi, My Name Is Ryan is the kind of film that gets festival audiences to their feet. A true-life story of an outsider who made the most with what he was given and then some; a living, breathing Max Fischer only far more likable. Ryan Avery grew up in a broken home, afflicted with a growth hormone deficiency that began as a 12-pound baby and went from there. Never one to sit on an idea, Ryan created a series of concept garage bands, one after another with their own themes, their own sound and (some might say) their distinct lack of genuine talent. Despite being an inspiration to those around him on hubris and stamina alone, one local artist sees him as a personal offense to all things artistic and candidly dishes it out like the old man neighbor tired of seeing that ball come over to his yard.

This Wayne Michael Reich provides a unique counterpoint to the protagonist that’s impossible not to root on when sitting on this side of the screen. In reality, going in cold on one of Ryan’s performances would likely inspire raised eyebrows and queried walkouts. But by meeting him first, Reich becomes this film’s Billy Mitchell, an egotistical unknown who, in probably less than ten minutes of actual screen time, manages to display the same amount of douchebaggery as The King of Kong’s antagonist. How aware Ryan is of the nature of satire that he’s trying to pull off with each band is left for critics to decide (check out his MySpace page for a taste), but how can you admit something isn’t twirling in that brain of his when the first one we’re introduced to (Father’s Day) consists of each member representing a different stereotype (i.e. golf dad, drunk dad, etc…) and venting about how bad their lives are. That’s funny stuff and much of Ryan’s experiments are right up to the story’s unusual life twist that offers a unique (and perhaps unintended) perspective on how imagination and free thought is continually snuffed out in this society. Don’t miss out on your opportunity to see one of those standing ovations you always hear about at festivals.

Saturday, June 14 – 7:00 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres
Sunday, June 15 – 12:30 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres

Director/Writer: Jim Finn
Starring: Jung Yoon Lee, Kim Sung, Oleg Mavromatti, Daniela Kostova, Jim Finn, Kim Jong Il

People may say they don’t go to movies to learn something, but when a filmmaker can distract you into it by entertaining at the same time learning can indeed be fun. If the subject matter leans towards Communist propaganda and philosophy, it’s all the more significant an accomplishment since that’s a brand of knowledge our anti-red, white and blue Ny-Quil mentality would rather avoid from college on up. Of course, I’m not saying that Jim Finn is a drab-colored clothing Commie; nor is he trying to convert you. But in his own unique manner of filmmaking he has created an entertaining collection of amateur celluloid that sheds continued light on the ironies and hypocrisies of a fanatical ideology.

South Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il, has been known for his overwhelming love of cinema, going so far to make some films himself and even kidnapping filmmaker, Shin Sang-Ok and his actress wife back in the ‘70s in his own Moon Over Parador attempt to wag the dog in favor of the worker’s party. Finn’s film partially follows Yoon Jung, a Korean video artist experimenting with the so-called Juche principle which is intersected with archived after-school-like short works that adapt to this pseudo-Orwellian (and frequently sexist) philosophy. On top of that, Yoon Jung has employed an Asian and Russian duo of gentlemen that could easily be the next thing to explode on YouTube for their limited acting abilities. Finn invites us to laugh at the absurdity of it all right up to a zero budget sci-fi short that concludes the film, but also asks us to closely observe how a belief system can be implemented through the most widespread and powerful medium we have. And if I’m to believe, as Juche does, that “blunting the edge of criticism of the negative will only result in weakening the militant revolutionary character of art,” do I now need a change of wardrobe or am I just a member of the Dubya Republicans?

Friday, June 13 – 9:00 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres
Monday, June 16 – 1:00 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres

Director: Dan Lindsay
Starring: Billy Gaines, Duncan Carroll, Jamie "The Champ" Clouser, Antonio "Tone" Vassilatos, Scott "Iceman" Reck, Sean Foster, Chris Hummel, Devin "The Freak" Cooch, Neil Guerriero

I never thought I would experience a more entertaining session of ping pong than a few years ago at Sundance when representatives from some of the most respected online film sites (including Cinematical, Film Threat, Rotten Tomatoes and this very one) got together on their final night (after a screening of Waitress, no less) to throw ping pong balls into cups filled with beer. Even as mostly a non-drinker myself, I had played this alcohol-laden version of the game with an actual table and paddles and not as a bastardization of Bozo’s Grand Prize Game. Of course, I never dreamed that someone would make a movie out of it either.

Little did I know that we were playing the game as played by fratboys on college campuses across the country and who knew it was taken so seriously? That’s more of a recent phenomenon as Dan Lindsay’s documentary catches up on only the 2nd Annual (indeed) World Series of Beer Pong. It was started in 2006 by Billy Gaines and Duncan Carroll, appropriately enough, just on the fringes of Vegas. Teams descended upon it. A year later the prize money was doubled to twenty grand and, by seeing this film, you can be witnessing the onset of history.

Can a film about something as trivial as beer pong be made into a movie though? Well, why not? They made it work for spelling bees, crossword puzzles and Scrabble. Just make it fun, have interesting enough characters to follow and take it seriously enough to include a lot of graphs and animation about the intricacies of the “sport.” And that’s precisely what Lindsay has done. Cinematically it’s almost impossible to flash up the drama of tiny balls splashing into alcohol in search of personal glory (metaphor alert?) without the use of slow motion, but it’s still better to watch than hockey on TV. Apparently the outtakes flesh out the danger of excessive drinking and flamboyant competitors in an enclosed space, but even sober the players are interesting enough to root for or against. (As a statistics junkie, I loved the guy with a self-made stat tracker that compiles every miss and condition of each game he plays.) Beer pong may be a young man’s game, but Last Cup should provide an entertaining relief to even the elder festival goers stuck through some of the more meandering dramas on their schedule.

Check out our interview with director Dan Lindsay.

Friday, June 13 – 6:30 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres
Sunday, June 15 – 1:00 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres

Director/Writer: Catherine Breillat
Starring: Asia Argento, Fu'ad Aït Aattou, Roxane Mesquida, Claude Sarraute, Yolande Moreau

Catherine Breillat’s work is more like a cold mug of arsenic than everyone’s hot cup of tea. She’s never shied away from graphic sexuality and her films can be in turns maddening and revolting. Her latest, however, is a little more traditionalist but no less toxic. I saw it at last year’s Toronto film festival. Our Peter Sobczynski wrote about it when it played the Chicago fest a month later:

“The idea of provocative filmmaker Catherine Breillat (“Romance,” “Fat Girl,” “Anatomy Of Hell”) and equally provocative actress Asia Argento collaborating on a film sounds like such an obvious match that you may wonder why no one thought of it before. However, fans of the two are liable to be taken aback at first by this film, a relatively sedate costume drama in which Argento plays a hot-blooded Spanish woman who is the obsession of a French nobleman who can’t seem to shake her even after marrying a sweet and simple noblewoman. For the first hour, it does drag a bit and the actor playing the nobleman is far too young and callow for the role but it does catch fire in the second half as Argento pulls out all the stops in a mad, passionate performance that manages to be simultaneously sexy and terrifying.”

Wednesday, June 18 – 5:00 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres

Director: John Corey
Starring: Harry Aleo, Greg Gilchrist, Andy Beyer, Larry Stumes, Russell Baze, Donna Brothers

Another chapter in horse racing has just ended with Big Brown failing to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed, some 30 years ago. There’s a happier side to that story though for anyone who watched jockey Kent Desormeaux take care of “his horse”; pulling him up when he knew he had no more to give in the Belmont. For those with your horse racing jones still on and not sitting in the Palms sportsbooks watching the dailies from Del Mar and Hawthorn, you may be interested in the tale of another champion. His name was Lost in the Fog and he was purchased by 87-year-old, part-time horse breeder, Harry Aleo. Lightning in a bottle doesn’t begin to describe it since watching the horse in action offers the distinct possibility that he could actually outrun lightning. Most narratives can’t deliver two impulsively watchable characters such as these and even card-carrying PETA members can take some comfort at the love shown to this horse during his life and in this film.

You can read my full review HERE and our interview with director John Corey.

Saturday, June 14 – 12:00 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres
Monday, June 16 – 4:00 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres

Director: Jared Drake
Writer: Brandon Drake
Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Judy Greer, Mia Maestro, Missi Pyle, James LeGros, Matthew Glave, Fay Masterson, Chris Coppola, Aubrey Morris, John Paulsen, John Keister and Pat Cashman

Movies like Visioneers are the reason we love to attend film festivals and precisely the type of avant-garde absurdity that I wish CineVegas would find more of. In their defense, the problem is that there are very few out there like it and most filmmakers can’t seem to pull it off without being completely derivative, showy or outright dull in the guise of “art.” In a dystopian landscape, not far from our own, people are spontaneously exploding. And you might too if you worked for the Jeffers Corporation like George Washington Winsterhammerman (Zach Galifianakis). His co-workers have the constant look of a Monday, an intercom gives them minute-by-minute reminders of the opportunities for daily production and their company salute doesn’t quite have that Spaceballian bit of reassurance at the end. George’s wife (Judy Greer) can’t find happiness in his embrace so tries to find self-help through the television. George finds his only solace in the disembodied voice of a fellow Jeffers employee, whose soothing calm suggests she’s the only one left hanging on in a society that has all but resigned itself to the daily grind.

Visioneers clearly owes a great debt to a number of futuristic nightmares. There are sprinkles of Brazil and 1984, bits of The Truman Show and Idiocracy. I prefer to see it as the opening scenes of Joe vs. the Volcano funneled through Eugene Ionesco. It’s deadpan irrationality to which we’re thrown into provides spates of huge laughs with an undercurrent of discomfort. Where Visioneers truly surprises though, aside from a remarkably understated performance from Galifianakis, is the way the Drakes successfully make the switch from dark comedy to delicate sadness by the end. They aren’t out to make us point and laugh at its sad sack protagonist. They feel for this guy and we come to as well as Galifianakis juggles the need for companionship and meaning in a society destined for a zero sum game. Few festival films leave you with that feeling of real discovery and Visioneers (while maybe not quite in the ranks of those other works) gives you the sense that the Drakes are just warming up.

Check out our interview with director Jared Drake.

Wednesday, June 18 – 4:30 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres
Thursday, June 19 – 8:30 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres

Directors: Harry Pallenberg and Phil Noyes
Writer: Blaire Baron Larsen
Starring: Teller (of Penn &), Gay Blackstone, Deanna Shimada, Frances Willard, Lance Burton’s Babes, The Great Tomsoni & Company

“Nobody cares what goes into the box. They only care what comes out.” So said one of the best screenplays and films of the last decade, The Prestige. While more of a Catholic metaphor than a statement of procedural disinterest, filmmakers Harry Pallenberg and Phil Noyes are out to pay tribute to the group of ladies who keep you busy while the magician is plotting their next move. Overlooked usually as the eye candy in the sexy outfits, there was a time when they shared billing with their male wizards. And why shouldn’t they? They’re sharing whatever risk might be involved in some of the more dangerous tricks and stage stunts.

Women in Boxes begins with a little too much introducing to the number of assistants on display, but once it engrosses itself into more than just the lifestyles and love lives of these ladies it’s a great look back at the golden age of magic. A wealth of archive footage stimulates the confessionals without ever delving into the cardinal sin of revealing a magician’s secrets. (Although we do finally here someone who “might be Teller” use his voice.) A history lesson of the evolution of magic (like the unique HBO special, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants) this is not, but a unique tribute to the old saying, “behind every great man there’s a woman” it certainly is. It’s best section becomes a commentary on the sexism of the position, but overall it’s a fitting letter of love that may (as the film all-too-briefly hints at) inspire some young ladies to take control of that magic with their own hands. Maybe in ten years CineVegas can then present a follow-up called “Men In Boxes” that isn’t actually the subtitle to a Sex and the City sequel.

Read our interview with the filmmakers.

Thursday, June 19 – 2:00 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres
Saturday, June 21 – 3:30 PM – Palms’ Brenden Theatres

And that’s just getting things started. There are numerous short film programs to attend, an interesting experiment by high school students shooting their first concert film (Sonic Youth: Sleeping Nights Awake), a spinoff sequel to an interesting documentary about the drug trade (Cocaine Cowboys II: Hustlin’ with the Godmother), spaghetti westerns (South of Heaven), grown men playing Easter bunnies (Hank and Mike) and sporting fake mustaches (Happy Birthday, Harris Malden), other documentaries about Hunter Thompson (Gonzo) and an artist’s playground (Chelsea on the Rocks), lost horses (Cochochi), lost cats (Goliath) and parties gone bad (Deficit, Memorial Day). If you miss any of those, you could try a film made up entirely of still photographs (Ano Una), other docs about artists (The Cool School), newspaper men (Where I Stand) and mob enforcers (The End), or tales of sons and their mothers (She Unfolds By Day, Momma’s Man). Tell me there’s not something for everyone in Vegas, let alone CineVegas.

And be sure to read further interviews in the CineVegas series with:

- Ben Rodkin (Big Heart City)
- Mike Gibisser (Finally, Lillian and Dan)
- Matthew Klinck (Hank and Mike)
- Sweaty Robot (Happy Birthday, Harris Malden)
- Rolf Belgum (She Unfolds By Day)

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originally posted: 06/12/08 00:40:57
last updated: 03/24/09 10:34:51
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