Film Festivals

CINEVEGAS: JUNE 7 – 14 2002

By • Jun 20th, 2002 •

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The organizers of the 4th Annual CineVegas International Film Festival took the traditional concept of a film festival and infused it with the exclusiveness and glamour of a high-rollers weekend in Las Vegas. Yes, there were over fifty feature films shown (along with shorts, classic gambling movies, documentaries, and a showcase for UNLV student filmmakers), but they provided a great deal more for a savvy audience. They understood that people come to Las Vegas for special events, but would also want to be part of a very hip VIP scene.

The 4th CineVegas delivers the goods with receptions, big parties, after hours parties, screenwriting seminars and one explosive world premiere – Jonas Ã…kerlund’s SPUN.

The main force behind CineVegas 2002 is Entertainment Development Corp.’s (beautiful and controversial) founder and C.E.O. L. Mimosa Jones. EDC’s (www.edclv.com) organizers wisely brought Trevor Groth, a 10-year programmer at the Sundance Film Festival, to serve as the event’s director of programming. The Palms, Las Vegas’s newest off-Strip casino resort, was the perfect venue. The Palms has Brenden Theatres (three were used exclusively for CineVegas) and a host of sophisticated restaurants and nightclubs, as well as the standard casino amenities. With the exception of a few parties at Strip casino-hotels (with free shuttle bus service provided by CineVegas), all events and screenings were held at the Palms.

CineVegas opened on Friday with a reception at the Palms Casino Resort’s ghostbar, a club situated 450 feet above the Las Vegas skyline. Ghostbar has an impressive open-air deck with a glass floor and stark CLOCKWORK ORANGE-like decor. The reception was followed by the premiere of John Sayles’ 13th film, SUNSHINE STATE. This 141-minute film was pure agony for me, but the audience, as well as many critics I talked to, loved it. Why did Groth choose such a slow-moving, long film to open the Festival? He told me he liked it and wanted a “soft opening.”

Angela Bassett plays a woman returning to Plantation Island, Florida, where real estate developers are trying to transform the modest rural community into an upscale resort. Nothing happens, and several characters pontificate. Most of the main characters have monologues.

Also on the Opening Night schedule was a concert by David Cross at the House of Blues at the Mandalay Bay Hotel-Casino, followed by an after hours party that began at 12:30 AM.

Saturday’s program started off with a fabulous Filmmaker’s Luncheon at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago at the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace. A small group was invited to meet, among many filmmakers, Michael Almedreda (HAPPY HERE AND NOW), Jonas Ã…kerlund (SPUN), and Mars Callahan (POOLHALL JUNKIES). In my opinion, Groth redeemed himself triumphantly by scheduling screenings of the highly enjoyable POOLHALL JUNKIES followed by the dazzling and provocative SPUN.

SPUN – about crystal meth addiction – is a blistering, unapologetic look at a 3-day drug binge. Remember the first time you saw PULP FICTION? Remember TRAINSPOTTING? Remember (the only good thing about) MAGNOLIA – Tom Cruise’s Frank T J Mackey’s “Respect the Cock” tirade? These are now “quaint” compared to the grandiose excess of SPUN. Jason Schwartzman plays a college drop-out meth addict who leaves a stripper sprawled out and tied naked to his bed for four days while he helps meth manufacturer Cook (Mickey Rourke) and Cook’s crazy stripper girlfriend (Brittany Murphy) run errands. His speed dealer, Spider Mike (John Leguizamo), masturbates and gets arrested only wearing a sock. Mike’s girlfriend (Mena Suvari) finally ends her bout with constipation on screen. Alexis Arquette abandons his drag queen day job to play a meth using police officer. There’s lots more. This film is the death knell for the allure of trying hard drugs.

The Opening Night Gala party (followed by an After Hours Party) was held at the fabulous Rain nightclub at The Palms. Many of the stars of SPUN were easily approachable and walked around (though Rain has VIP boxes, cabana areas, and water booths, these private areas were not in use). I only glanced at a mobbed Mickey Rourke holding court at a bar and passed supermodel-turned-actress Shalom Harlow waiting outside on a very long line.

Sunday’s festivities included an afternoon reception at Garduno’s restaurant at the Palms, followed by several evening screenings, including HAPPY HERE AND NOW (USA), GIGANTIC (USA), ALL ABOUT LILY CHOW-CHOU (Japan), and the audience favorite, BUBBA HO-TEP. Bruce Campbell, star of BUBBA, director-writer Don Coscarelli, and short-story author Joe R. Lansdale introduced the film, stayed for Q&A, and then went on with the rest of us to Venus at The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino.

BUBBA is the story of what might have happened to Elvis Presley – if he switched identities with an Elvis impersonator, got old, and was living in a nursing home. An evil soul-sucking Egyptian mummy returns to feed off sick, old people. Only Elvis and a very old JFK (he survived the assassination and, through plastic surgery, is now a black man) can fight the mummy. Well, enough said about BUBBA. Venus, a gorgeous new tiki bar, served roasted pig and 80’s disco music.

Monday’s program began with Border’s presents: Coffee with. . .Series hosted by New York Times Film Critic Elvis Mitchell. Elvis ably sparred with novelist Jerry Stahl, infamous as the character Ben Stiller played in PERMANENT MIDNIGHT (based on Stahl’s book). Stahl, who is now writing screenplays as well as novels, was self-effacing and refreshingly blunt. He enchanted the large audience with his take on the Hollywood filmmaking process. Stahl denied knowing anything about story structure and plot. He said he gets jobs because of his “edgy” reputation and then promptly gets fired. He was so engaging, I’ve started a letter-writing campaign to have an entire afternoon devoted to Stahl at the 5th Annual CineVegas International Film Festival. Apparently, Stahl’s fame came so late in life (if late 30’s is indeed late) that he doesn’t give a damn about holding onto it.

The films shown included CHICKEN RICE WAR (Singapore), NO NEWS FROM GOD (Spain) and SEX AND LUCIA (Spain). Monday night’s big gala event was IT’S VEGAS, BABY held at Light at Bellagio Hotel & Casino. This high ticket event had seventeen of Las Vegas’s headliners performing including Siegfried & Roy, Wayne Newton, Lance Burton, the cast of Cirque du Soleil, and Las Vegas’s most recent attraction, Charo.

Tuesday’s events started with ‘Border’s presents: Coffee with. . .’ Series. The team behind WILD, WILD WEST, TREMORS and GHOST DAD, S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock and Nancy Roberts, were the guests. Again, Elvis did a terrific job luring answers out of these three.

Later, I attended a packed screening of SUPER SUCKER, written and directed by Jeff Daniels. It’s the story of a vacuum salesman who stumbles upon an “attachment” that renders earthquake-like orgasms. An entire Michigan town explodes in orgiastic frenzy – as did the CineVegas audience. It made me cringe! Luckily, SUPER SUCKER was preceded by a wonderful, very funny and charming four minute short, THE COMEBACK, starring Samuel L. Jackson and directed by Trent Cooper. Jackson vows to settle the score and makes a dramatic return to a sport he abandoned long ago – Pee Wee Football. The evening party was held at Studio 54 at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino.

Wednesday began at 10 AM with ‘Border’s presents: Coffee with. . .’ Series with Elvis talking to guest Stephan Mazor, current professor of screenwriting at AFI. Mazor’s credits include HEARTBREAKERS, LIAR LIAR, and THE LITTLE RASCALS. CineVegas adventurers were given the opportunity of taking a trip to Nevada’s infamous Area 51 with a luncheon at The Little Ale’ Inn on Extraterrestrial Highway in Rachel. This event sold out quickly. (Years ago I made the pilgrimage to Area 51 and The Little Ale’ Inn. The Inn sells a lot of UFO memorabilia junk and has the cheapest hamburgers in Nevada). Films shown were STRANGE HEARTS (with star Robert Forster in attendance), TADPOLE (with John Ritter walking around and signing stuff at the CineVegas reception room and in attendance at the screening), and MENTAL (written and directed by Thomas Russell). The evening party was held at China Grill at Mandalay Bay Hotel-Casino.

On Thursday evening Chameleon Studios at Irvin Productions held a POOLHALL JUNKIES premiere party. The cast, Mars Callahan, Chazz Palminteri, Rick Schroeder and Anson Mount, were in attendance. Unfortunately, the great Christopher Walken (Callahan does a devastating homage to Walken) could not make the Festival. Callahan, who co-wrote, directed, and stars in JUNKIES, spent ten years as a professional pool player. He knows the terrain and admirably does what needed to be done for Rick Schroeder – Callahan made him tough and sexy. Callahan has a lot of on-screen charisma his director didn’t mine. Whenever an actor directs himself he loses the ability to objectify the character. I predict another director will exploit Callahan’s sex appeal. The After Hours Party was held at Coyote Ugly at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino. Coyote Ugly is not one of my favorite places – it’s too loud and there’s no place to sit. However, the bartenders are brash, young, thin, and very good looking.

Friday began with the Critic’s Award Brunch held at Smith & Wollensky Steakhouse. The Critic’s Award jury was made up of Harry Knowles of Ain’t-It-Cool-News; Emanuel Levy, a two-time president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association; and Anne Thompson, West Coast editor of Premiere magazine. The jury chose “G” (directed by Christopher Scott Cherot and starring Blair Underwood) for it’s top award. A special directing prize went to FACE (directed by Bertha Bay-Sa Pan) and an Honorable Mention to DRAFTDODGING (directed by Wendall Adams). Friday’s evening party was held at one of my favorite restaurants, the Palm’s Little Buddha.

Saturday’s program included screenings of RUN RONNIE, RUN! (directed by Troy Miller), FACE (with star Bai Ling in attendance), and a charming French film, GET A WAY (directed by Noah Nuer). Special events included CineVegas Charity Black Jack Tournament with 108 players and 13 celebrities. To join this event cost $500 and was open to a select group of professional players, filmmakers and festival attendees. The winner – Dustin Hoffman’s wife Lisa! – won the $5,000 cash prize. The Audience Award was given to WEST OF HERE (directed by Peter CB Masterson and starring Josh Hamilton and Mary Stuart Masterson) and in the documentary category, BREATH CONTROL: HISTORY OF THE HUMAN BEAT BOX (directed by Joey Garfield and Jacob Craycroft). The Marquee Award achievement presentation was given to Dustin Hoffman and held at the exclusive Four Seasons Hotel at Mandalay Bay.

A closing reception was held at Rande Gerber’s Whiskey Sky at Green Valley Ranch Resort with a spectacular display of fireworks featuring a two-story high “orb.” And to really close CineVegas in a style honoring Las Vegas decadence, the Closing Party, held at Rain, was hosted by Gene Simmons’ Tongue Magazine.

The 4th Annual CineVegas International Film Festival was not cheap: The Premiere package (everything included except ‘It’s Vegas, Baby’, The Black Jack Tournament, and the trip to Area 51) cost $550; the Die Hard Film Fanatic Package cost $450; other packages went for $300. Individual events were reasonably priced and the public was invited to purchase tickets to each screening.
Considering the organizers of CineVegas showered the attendees with big parties and interaction with filmmakers and stars, the cost was – by Las Vegas standards – an enviable bargain. For anyone loving film festivals and interested in being in Las Vegas as a privileged insider, The 5th Annual CineVegas International Film Festival should not be missed.

All photographs by Chuck Walker. (1) John Tunney lll and L. Mimosa Jones; (2) ghostbar; (3) Mickey Rourke.

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