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CineVegas 2009 - 10 Films (+1) To Put On Your Schedule

by Erik Childress

Every year CineVegas comes around and makes me a happy guy. I get to travel to my favorite city in the world not named Chicago and partake in a generous mix of film, parties, friends and everything else Vegas has to offer. Movies all day, VIP parties at night and a bowling party for filmmakers and press. That’s what I call a little slice of heaven. For the first time since the early days of its inception, CineVegas has sliced their festival from ten days to only six. The film lineup is only down to 34 from last year’s 44 (43 if you don’t count that Schoof nonsense) so that means the days will be fuller and in some cases longer. If you play your cards right and have the fortitude you could find a way to see every one of the films CineVegas has to offer. But if you’re down to your last hundred bucks for the month, care to go to a few parties and buy a package that will get you into a dozen films, allow me to offer my annual selection of where you can help fill the theaters at the Palms Hotel this year.


(500) DAYS OF SUMMER
Director/Writer: Marc Webb
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Clark Gregg, Matthew Gray Gubler


By the time Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer arrives in CineVegas it will already have played Sundance, South by Southwest, Philadelphia, Florida and Seattle. To name just a few. In no way does this make the film an after-thought for the festival organizers to have landed. If anything, it should signal to you that Fox Searchlight has nothing but confidence in this film. Since seeing its Sundance premiere I have had nothing but love for this film. Actually the only thing that’s changed aboseut it is the parentheses in the title. 2009 has been a fairly bad year for film, no matter what the budget, and through Memorial Day I was yet to give a title in release my top rating. As CineVegas begins this year there will finally be one, Sam Mendes’ Away We Go. But if you want a preview of maybe the second one (not opening until July), you need to set aside time in Vegas on June 12 to see one of the best films of the year.

(Here is what I wrote about it at South by Southwest in March.)

We’re told right from the get-go (in easily one of the funniest pre-title scrawls you’ll ever see) that this is not a film destined for happy endings. It’s the tale of a break-up that takes us back and forth between various points of time during the 500 days (give or take a few) that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom spends with Zooey Deschanel’s Summer. He works at a greeting card company, delivering the catchy pre-packaged poetry bought for loved ones around the world and he instantly takes a shine to the new secretary on the block. She has a bit of reluctance jumping into another relationship and he’s a bit nervous on making the first move. But once they commit to each other it’s all sunshine and Hall-and-Oates tunes. Only there’s a stark contrast between those glorious beginnings and a year later as they find themselves slowly growing apart, but not because of the standard plot contrivances we’re used to in nine out of every ten romantic comedies to hit theaters.

What debuting director Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (ignore their Pink Panther 2 credit) have done is given this generation probably about as close to their Annie Hall as they’re going to get. They are genuinely interested in these character’s feelings and the tough choices involved in giving into those emotions. No pre-rehearsed Bachelor confessions here. No, this is actual reality for any number of young couples with true love striking one and the doubt of being able to convince themselves hitting the other (and us) hard. Don’t be scared, we’re not talking Shoot the Moon or Ordinary People here. 500 Days of Summer is a romantic comedy and occasionally a gut-busting one that has the potential to shoot a rib directly into your heart. It’s honest and is identifiable to both sexes, despite a forewarned male perspective. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, after headlining little seen gems like Brick and The Lookout, is going to be receiving a lot of love after this comes out and deservingly so, and its great to see Zooey Deschanel return to the world of doomed relationships. The first film I ever saw at a film festival was David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls (Netflix it now) and after a bad year that saw her waste her charm in Yes Man and give one of the most stupefyingly head-scratching performances in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, Zooey has finally come full circle as the heartbreaker every guy would hope to hold a hand with. Most people will have to wait until July to see 500 Days of Summer. If you’re in Austin for SXSW, you’ll just have to wait until the end of the festival. It’s worth the stay.

SCREENING TIMES
Friday, June 12 – 8:00 PM – Palms’ Brendan Theatres



EASIER WITH PRACTICE
Director/Writer: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Starring: Brian Geraghty, Kel O’Neill, Marguerite Moreau, Jeanette Brox, Jenna Gavigan, Kathryn Aselton


Who wouldn’t want to see a film featuring a ten-minute uninterrupted phone sex scene? When I interviewed writer/director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and asked him to convince viewers to go see his film at CineVegas, he certainly sold me with that information. But that would be selling the film short. Easier With Practice, based on a story by Found Magazine founder, Davy Rothbart, is not just about cheap sexual theatrics. It’s a thoughtful relationship drama about a guy (Brian Geraghty) roped into a seemingly random tryst with a voice on the other end of a phone that calls him one night. Guilt-free phone sex turns into something more intimate between the two. But how often can someone live within a fantasy before wanting the reality? Never playing out precisely as you might imagine, Alvarez’s film becomes a quietly subtle thriller as we’re uniquely put into the shoes of Geraghty’s Davy in wanting to know the whole story behind his mysterious suitor. Sold yet? If not, read my full review here and then immediately buy a ticket or put it on your CineVegas pass schedule.

SCREENING TIMES
Friday, June 12 – 3:30 PM – Palms’ Brendan Theatres
Saturday, June 13 – 1:00 PM – Palms’ Brendan Theatres


ETIENNE
Director/Writer: Jeff Mizushima
Starring: Richard Vallejos, Megan Harvey, Caveh Zahedi, Rachel Stolte, Solon Bixler, David Fine


A man + his hamster + cancer = What? The answer to that question would normally be one of two things. Either (A) An overly cute and occasionally cloying tearjerker or (B) An overly indie-centric journey of discovery with minimal dialogue that should be a short film rather than something feature-length. Thankfully, Jeff Mizushima has come up with a third solution that has elements of A & B but earns its length. Just describing the plot about a shy guy devoted to his hamster who learns its dying and decides to take it on a road trip is enough to produce an instant smile or scoff. Unlike such peculiar road journeys like The Straight Story and Into the Wild, Etienne is more of a comic fable about living out one’s last days and certainly has its share of quirks. Mizushima never quite takes us where we keep expecting and in that go-where-the-day-takes-us mindset there are no easy solutions or forced happy endings. Taking the mantra of “if you love someone, set it free” to all its possible meanings, Etienne is one of those films you can unashamedly describe as lovely. You can read my full review here and see the film at CineVegas on the same days as Easier With Practice.

SCREENING TIMES
Friday, June 12 – 8:30 PM – Palms’ Brendan Theatres
Saturday, June 13 – 3:00 PM – Palms’ Brendan Theatres




HUMPDAY
Director: Lynn Shelton
Starring: Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard, Alycia Delmore, Lynn Shelton , Trina Willard


What more can be said about two heterosexual guys who think they can make a gay (yet platonic) amateur porn film that hasn’t been said already? Plenty probably. I am actually looking forward to seeing this again with the crowds at CineVegas. If the audience in Mormon country could respond as heartily as they did at Sundance this year, then surely the progressives in sin city should be down with Lynn Shelton’s terrific comedy – even if it doesn’t mean a trip to the Swinger’s Clubs afterwards. It was on my 10-To-See list for South by Southwest this year and on one of its last stops on the festival circuit before hitting theaters in July, don’t miss the opportunity to see its one and only screening at CineVegas this year. You can read my full review here.

SCREENING TIMES
Saturday, June 13 – 8:00 PM – Palms’ Brendan Theatres




IN THE LOOP
Director: Armando Iannucci
Writers: Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci & Tony Roche
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, Gina McKee, James Gandolfini, Chris Addison, Anna Chlumsky, Mimi Kennedy, David Rasche


Comedies like In The Loop just don’t exist anymore. Can you remember the last time you saw a topical political satire with rapid-fire obscenity (morally and literally) and character exchanges that would rival the best of the screwball era? Wag the Dog back in 1997, maybe? David Mamet himself would probably have his ears burning at the barrage of vulgarity that makes Glengarry Glen Ross in all it’s glory look like its broadcast on Bravo. Aaron Sorkin during his best years on The West Wing would have to tip his hat to director Armando Iannucci and his team of writers for the job they’ve done spinning off the BBC series, The Thick Of It, for uninitiated audiences to appreciate the world over.

Politicians say and do stupid things every day. Anyone with a working ear and a brain can attest to that between 2001-2008. Soundbite gaffes come in all variations though. Sometimes it’s a vocabulary glitch that English teachers would choke over and sometimes that glitch is enough to throw entire countries into spin mode. When the British Minister for International Development (Tom Hollander, known for his villainous turn in the last two Pirates of the Caribbean films) blurts out that war is “unforeseeable”, he touches off a backroom firestorm between the U.K. and the U.S., both with their own agendas on how to fight their enemies. The Prime Minister’s Director of Communications (Peter Capaldi) can’t open his mouth without insulting one of his inferiors in an attempt to undo the damage. The American undersecretary (Mimi Kennedy) has to deal with a memo written by her assistant (Anna Chlumsky) about the cost of steamrolling into a war which runs counter to her boss’ boss (David Rasche) who is forming a pro-war committee and sees everything Hollander’s BMID does as a godsend to his cause. In the middle of it all is a Pentagon general (James Gandolfini) who has seen war up close and is not eager to see more men sacrificed for a lesser political cause.

In The Loop may be the best satirically-laced cautionary tale of its kind since Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick’s film would have trouble keeping up with the sheer pace of barb-wired wit and cynicism that is brought to the metaphorical war room here. It can’t be an accident that the film’s trailer pays more than a little homage to another Kubrick avowal about violence. Although never specifying the details of whom the players may be going to war with, it’s clearly not far removed from the days leading up to America’s first vengeful strike post-9/11. You don’t need to understand everyone’s job titles or be familiar with the BBC show to value the comic artistry on display here. Peter Capaldi alone needs to be remembered come award time for the manner in which he makes a one-note vulgarian still appear like the smartest (if not, most ethical) guy in the room. Equal shout-outs to Hollander who plays his guy like a closed door schemer too stupid to realize he’s not helping his career any, the always reliable Rasche becoming one of the premium scene-stealers in the business, and Chlumsky for showing she can stand tall with the boys in her meatiest role since her breakout eighteen years ago in My Girl. James Gandolfini is a real standout here never letting his imposing presence mask a genuinely sympathetic portrayal of a career military man we hope would be in charge of our boys and girls. I can’t think of a better way to start the day than to see the one-and-only screening at CineVegas this year. It will be in select theaters beginning July 24, but why wait? You will not be sorry.

SCREENING TIMES
Thursday, June 11 – 11:30 AM – Palms’ Brendan Theatres




IT CAME FROM KUCHAR
Director: Jennifer M. Kroot
Starring: George Kuchar, Mike Kuchar, John Waters, Buck Henry


My familiarity with the Kuchar Brothers are only in name. Long before the Coens, the Wachowskis and the Polishs became famous filmmaker duos, twins George and Mike Kuchar were part of the underground film movement in New York. While every bit as anti-Hollywood as contemporaries like Andy Warhol and John Waters, their films maintained a fun, schlocky quality that were unafraid to play up their own grotesquery with less-than-attractive amateurs and themes that often revolved around sex. One of the rare film professors who could claim they did actually “do” along with “teach”, George certainly inspired one student at the San Francisco Art Institute and she knew the Kuchar story was one worthy of a documentary.

Jennifer M. Kroot’s film chronicles a filmography that isn’t readily available to rent in bulk. Films with titles like The Devil’s Cleavage, I Was A Teenage Rumpot and Thundercrack just scream out for any hepcat curiosity. Studying the Kuchars in class or through their work could be enough to horrify aspiring film students, as John Waters himself admits. Ed Wood-ian, perhaps, in their low-rent style, quick takes and use-whatever-we-have production design, the Kuchars nevertheless had an impact on the Hollywood scene. Try doubling up on the Kuchars’ Sins of the Fleshapoids and Barbarella some night and tell me who was inspired. Kroot has obtained many fans of the brothers from Atom Egoyan to Guy Maddin. Buck Henry has some particularly entertaining thoughts on some of George’s later work and it’s when we delve into the underlying motivations for exploring their maternal issues or George’s sexuality that the film expands from being just a time capsule piece.

There’s a refreshing quality about It Came From Kuchar for film lovers of all varieties. Just for the clips alone, even the most baffled of viewers will want to see at least one Kuchar work in its entirety. With over 200 short films to their credit, the only ones readily available on Netflix are Sins of the Fleshapoids and I, An Actress (the latter as part of the American Avant-Garde Film 1947-1986 set) and Kroot does a really nice job in underlining the appreciation of their work without cornering us into mocking what we don’t understand. It Came From Kuchar is entertaining and educational even to a film buff like myself and was an easy choice for this list well before it was announced George & Mike would be honored at the festival and a retrospective of their work would be screened. Visit the website (http://www.kucharfilm.com/)

SCREENING TIMES
Friday, June 12 – 3:45 PM – Palms’ Brendan Theatres
Saturday, June 13 – 1:15 PM – Palms’ Brendan Theatres




MOON
Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey


Moon was amongst the ten best films I saw at Sundance this year. It was one of the ten best at South by Southwest. Why wouldn’t it be at CineVegas? Here’s what I wrote at SXSW this year.

Science fiction is one of those genres that seems to have no middle ground when created on film. Either you have a large enough budget to produce endless special effects or less than two pennies to rub up against a grand idea. Normally you have too much of one and not enough of the other. Sci-Fi has become a lost art over the years and so few true films have been branded under the moniker that we’ve become comfortable labeling comic book adaptations and anything just a wee bit out of the ordinary in the same mold famously repped by classics like 2001 and Metropolis. Duncan Jones though has staked a claim to that middle ground though. Basically a one-man show for Sam Rockwell, Jones takes what could have been just another failed attempt to extend a Twilight Zone episode and creates a simple, elegant and at times encapsulating work of science fiction.

Sam Bell (Rockwell) is the lone astronaut contracted to do a three-year stretch on Earth’s moon to harvest solar energy for a planet that has squandered most of its resources. It’s a daily routine of checking gauges, drill monitoring and exercise. (We all saw what happened to the lie-abouts in WALL-E.) Assisting Sam in his duties is the reliable piece of programmed intelligence known as Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey) and the only human contact he has is from the videotapes he receives from his wife and child back home. It’s enough to make a cubicle job seem like a tightrope walker. Sam does see a little action one day out on the surface though when he gets into a wreck and winds up severely injured. Did he really see what he thought he saw or is his mind on its last cells just as he’s on the verge of finishing his shift and returning to Earth?

Again, simple and elegant but far from being content to just rely on the same old tricks to mess with an audience. The details of what is actually occurring on screen from this moment on shouldn’t be spoiled, but are never far away from the questions that come with the territory of an isolated state of mind. Tom Hanks may have had Wilson, Bruce Dern had his plants and Sam certainly has Gerty, but neither can replace the element of human connection that seems further and further away even when it appears so close. Moon asks you to pay close attention to those details though and doesn’t stoop to spelling out or retracing every dot that’s connected by the end. Whether it be the ironic use of the theme from Doc Hollywood (of all films) or the social argument implied by the film’s final line of dialogue, Moon is more than just another spooky ghost story in futuristic clothing. It’s a reminder that science fiction can still be about ideas as well as imagination.

Moon opens in limited release just a day after its CineVegas showing. But at the festival you can see In The Loop and Moon back-to-back. That’s what we call in the film business as a great Thursday.

SCREENING TIMES
Thursday, June 11 – 2:00 PM – Palms’ Brendan Theatres




PATRIOTVILLE
Director: Talmage Cooley
Writer: Annie Nocenti
Starring: Justin Long, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Rob Corddry, Keir O’Donnell, Missi Pyle, Nick Offerman, Phil Reeves


Where is the line drawn between a noble effort at historical preservation and the society that would rather you just get a life and stop stepping on their cloud? The town of Patriotville aren’t even halfway to cloud nine these days, but the impending arrival of an Indian casino might be enough to perk up their dwindling community. Chase Revere (Justin Long) doesn’t see it that way though once it’s revealed that the location for said gambling complex is smack dab on the Revolutionary battlefield the town is known for. With the help of a local beauty (Emmanuelle Chriqui) he’s sweet on, Chase tries to rally the people into protest. But with the Mayor (Rob Corddry) dead set on seeing this deal through and a community who would see him shut up than speak up on their behalf, Chase’s battle might be a losing one from the get-go.

That’s part of the cynical streak that runs through Patriotville, which is otherwise a very funny comedy populated by a terrific comic presence from Long all the way down the cast list. Don’t turn your attention away for a moment because these actors know how long to stretch out a joke and when to react to some of the absurdity in the dialogue. Long is particularly good at this and shows a real sensitivity in being a step behind his own cause but well ahead in the brains and nobility departments. In-between the many laughs though, Patriotville becomes a sly think piece on today’s economic conditions and the ignorance that has come with certain entitlements and promises. There are a lot of great comedies at CineVegas this year, but who really gets tired of laughter? You can read my full review here.


SCREENING TIMES
Friday, June 12 – 6:00 PM – Palms’ Brendan Theatres
Saturday, June 13 – 10:30 AM – Palms’ Brendan Theatres




SEA OF DARKNESS
Director: Michael Oblowitz


Two groups of people I don’t exactly have a kinship with are surfers and drug dealers. As more of a low-key thrill seeker, I have never tried either. So I couldn’t imagine hanging out with Mike Boyum, Jeff Chitty, Martin Daly, Gerry Lopez and Peter McCabe during their experiences along the Indonesian coast in the 70s and 80s. They had found their little paradise, a place known as G-Land where they could surf all day and party all night. They built a surfing camp. Bill Murray was visiting them in the middle of a writer’s strike. These were no amateurs either. You don’t need Hi-def cameras or Blu-ray discs to impress with surfing footage, even if you don’t care if these guys wipeout. Watching these guy do their thing is pretty stunning, especially whne you understand most of them are high on one thing or another. I’ve seen surfboards do a lot of amazing things. Never saw one used to smuggle dope.

And that’s what Sea of Darkness is ultimately all about. G-Land became a smuggler’s port and these guys were front and center organizing trips to find the best drugs and the perfect waves. You might think twice the next time you want to call Point Break a preposterous premise after seeing this. Oblowitz’s documentary is a largely talking head piece but told just as much through its tightly-edited visuals. Any documentary has a great chance of succeeding if when its all over your thoughts shift to how great a scripted feature would be of its story. Sea of Darkness you’re thinking about it while it’s still going on with its fascinating characters and an arc of crime and adventure. The only thing that could prevent a fiction-based film from being any more interesting than what Oblowitz accomplishes here is the presence of filmmaker John Milius. Interspersed throughout with his thoughts on this “wanton hedonism”, Milius who directed the 1978 surfing flick, Big Wednesday (where Gerry Lopez played himself), is precisely the guy whose voice you want to hear on this subject. Connecting this journey to the ones explored by Joseph Conrad and Apocalypse Now, Milius’ mischievous little smirk at the end of his commentary (especially after referring to Col. Kurtz) puts the perfect exclamation point on this all-too-common tale of paradise lost.

SCREENING TIMES
Friday, June 12 – 5:30 PM – Palms’ Brendan Theatres
Saturday, June 13 – 12:30 PM – Palms’ Brendan Theatres



OTHER SCREENINGS TO CHECK OUT
From another part of the world Jessica Oreck’s Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is an interesting little documentary about the Japanese obsession with bugs as a part of their culture. Sounds like a mock-worthy subject, but Oreck treats the subject with not just respect, but class. Almost Zen-like at times, it alternates between some wonderful nature cinematography and the humans who worship their connection to history. Occasionally marred by some extra-quiet visions of the cities at night, it’s still a perfect antithesis to the rapid-fire ambush of lights and noise in sin city. If you’re unlike me and don’t find slot beeps and blips soothing, then perhaps you can find some tranquility in Oreck’s pleasant trip through insect traditions on Thursday, June 11 at 4:00 PM or on Friday, June 12 at 10:00 AM at the Palms. We also have a full review from Jay Seaver that you can read right here.



WORLD’S GREATEST DAD
Director/
Writer
: Bob Goldthwait
Starring: Robin Williams, Daryl Sabara, Alexie Gilmore, Henry Simmons, Geoff Pierson


Making his second trip to CineVegas as a director after the uncensored version of his hilarious Windy City Heat played here in 2004, Bobcat Goldthwait has the honor of closing the festival with another of his wonderfully twisted comedies. Another of the great batch of Sundance titles to crossover from the snow to the desert, World’s Greatest Dad features Robin Williams doing his best work since the 1-2 punch of Insomnia and One Hour Photo in 2002. Although not playing a psychotic this time around (although some may argue that point), Williams is a far more sympathetic fellow as a widower saddled with the task of fathering one of the worst teenagers in recent recorded cinema. That was the extent of what I knew going into the film at Sundance. While most reviewers chose to reveal certain plot elements (and its hard not to) I’d rather audiences share the same experience I had. It works as a greater experience emotionally and minimizes any pre-conceived judgment you may have come in with regarding Williams’ character and his actions. It’s also really damn funny in that “should I be laughing?” way and a great choice to conclude this 11th year of the CineVegas Film Festival. You can read my full review here. The film is currently slated to open in theaters around the country on Aug. 21.

SCREENING TIMES
Sunday, June 14 – 7:30 PM – Palms’ Brendan Theatres



And that’s all just to get you started. There are still a number of films I’ve yet to see and will be catching up on all of them. If you should decide to take my selections to heart, here’s a little easy-to-use schedule for you to plan your festival. Don’t be shy either. Come up and say hi to me at the festival or drop me a line at erik@efilmcritic.com and let me know your thoughts on what you saw – my selections and otherwise. See you in Vegas!

CINEVEGAS SCHEDULE

Thursday, June 11
11:30 AM - In the Loop
2:00 PM - Moon
4:00 PM - Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

Friday, June 12
3:30 PM - Easier with Practice
5:30 PM - Sea of Darkness
8:00 PM - (500) Days of Summer

Saturday, June 13
10:30 AM - Patriotville
1:15 PM - It Came From Kuchar
3:00 PM - Etienne!
8:00 PM - Humpday

Sunday, June 14
7:30 PM - World's Greatest Dad



link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2772
originally posted: 06/09/09 04:40:38
last updated: 06/09/09 04:53:16
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