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11th Annual CineVegas Film Festival

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11th Annual CineVegas Film Festival at The Palms

The 11th Annual CineVegas Film Festival was held June 10 – 15 at the Palms Casino Resort and Brenden Theatres.  Robin Greenspun serves as the festival’s President, Trevor Groth serves as Artistic Director and Dennis Hopper serves as the Chairman of the Creative Advisory Board.

Trevor Groth - CineVegas artistic director
11th Annual CineVegas Film Festival at The Palms

By Judy Thorburn
Photos by Stephen Thorburn (unless otherwise indicated)

The 11th Annual CineVegas Film Festival was held June 10 – 15 at the Palms Casino Resort and Brenden Theatres.  Robin Greenspun serves as the festival’s President, Trevor Groth serves as Artistic Director and Dennis Hopper serves as the Chairman of the Creative Advisory Board.
Dennis Hopper

Due to the economic recession, the festival was scaled back to six days instead of ten, but that didn’t appear to hinder the line up of films presented nor have an effect on the attendance of local, national as well as international film buffs that traveled from all over the world for this yearly event. Along with screenings of the hottest new independent films, documentaries, and shorts by innovative filmmakers, there were the customary red carpet events, after parties (which were held at LAVO, the Pool and Rain Nightclub at the Palms, Moorea Beach Club at Mandalay Bay, the Playboy Club and Sidebar on Fremont Street) and celebrity tributes.

Awards Ceremony at Rain Nightclub

Most of the films were screened inside the Brenden Theatres at the hip resort. However, the festival kicked off with an opening night screening at Planet Hollywood of SAINT JOHN OF LAS VEGAS starring Steve Buscemi as John, an ex-gambler turned insurance fraud investigator residing in Albuquerque who is sent back to his old turf of Las Vegas to investigate a claim. The entertaining offbeat comedy drama follows John’s journey which entails a budding romance with a co-worker, meeting up with a wheelchair bound stripper, a human torch, some armed nudists, and other characters. Steve Bushemi was not able to attend the screening, but his costar Sarah Silverman made an appearance on the red carpet and was introduced on stage when the movie was over.

Sarah Silverman
Photo credit: Rob Goald

Although the festival did not conclude until the following Monday evening, Bobcat Goldthwait’s dark comedy THE WORLD’S GREATEST DAD was billed as the closing night film and was screened on Sunday night.  Robin Williams turns in a terrific performance as the single father of a nasty (to put it mildly) disrespectful son who dies in a most embarrassing way. The story follows the surprise turn of events that occurs after the devoted father comes up with a resourceful plan to cover up the truth of his son’s death.

Other films I was able to secure a ticket to were:

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER -  Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel star in a boy meets girl, boy loses girl, romantic comedy and in which the heart broken young man revisits memories of their bittersweet love affair.  This was my favorite film at this year’s CineVegas mostly due to the strong, sensitive performance by Gordon Levitt (an amazing actor desrined for stardom) and a storyline that departs from the usual formula.
After the movie Director Marc Webb and Joseph Gordon Levitt were on hand for a Q & A. The director said his film is “told from a male point of view but is not gender specific.  It is about what happens when life you expect collides with life you encounter.” Asked why it unfolds in a no n-linear structure, Webb said “It is because it works the way memory does.”
Joseph Gordon Levitt and Judy Thorburn

DAYLIGHT- This horror film is about a young Swiss couple; a pregnant wife and her husband that are kidnapped by two dangerous thugs while driving to a wedding in the country. Ivan Martin is effective as one of the two psycho killers, but Michael Godere stands out with one of the most chilling performances I have seen in a long time.

Director David Barker (center) with Daylight costars Michael Godere (left) and Ivan Martin

MOON - Sam Rockwell stars as an astronaut looking forward to going back home to earth after completing his three year contract of working on the moon.  In this mix of sci fi drama and psychological thriller, Rockwell delivers another excellent performance that keeps your interest.

After the screening director Duncan Jones (David Bowie’s son) answered questions from the audience about the making of the film. He said it was shot at Shepperton Studios in England over the course of 33 days with a budget of $5 million. Also, he wrote it with Rockwell in mind so that he could work with him. Rockwell wasn’t able to attend the screening, but Jones brought along the banana colored astronaut suit the actor wore in the film.

BEAUTIFUL DARLING – Writer/director James Raisin’s insightful documentary explores the life of 60’s and 70’s transsexual, underground superstar Candy Darling (born James Slattery); a member of Andy Warhol’s Factory of actors, who wanted more than anything of becoming a Hollywood star like “Kim Novak”, but died in 1974 before the age of 30. Through vintage footage and interviews with one of her closest friends, Jeremiah Newton and others that knew her such as photographer Fran Lebowitz and Warhol superstars Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn and Paul Morrissey, one hopes to get a better understanding of this beautiful, but troubled "darling".

ASYLUM SEEKERS -   An absurd farce about six nut jobs who vie for the one room left in a mental institution. I found it to be a bizarre cross between One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, Alice in Wonderland, and Rocky Horror Picture Show.

EASIER WITH PRACTICE - Up and coming, brilliant young actor Brian Geraghty (co-starring in this year’s most powerful film, The Hurt Locker) plays a socially inept young writer who becomes emotionally obsessed with the person he has been having phone sex with and only knows as  Nicole.
'Easier With Practice' star Brian Geraghty, actress Vivica Davis and Judy Thorburn

HUMPDAY – Two straight best friends from college days decide to have sex on camera as part of an art project.  Sounds like one of those stupid frat boy comedies, right?  Well, to my surprise I was thoroughly entertained by the clever, smart dialogue and well crafted storyline that only verbally suggests but steers clear from any explicit homosexual activity.

YOUTH KNOWS NO PAIN – Mitch McCabe’s (the daughter of a plastic surgeon) revealing documentary examines the obsession with ways to stay young through interviews with surgeons, mostly women who have undergone plastic surgery, and her own personal experience with crèmes, botox, skin rejuvenation and needles.

THE HEADLESS WOMAN (Monday, June 15) - From Argentina, the Spanish language film with subtitles revolves around a woman who becomes disconnected from the people around her after she is involved in a unfortunate car accident that took the life of an innocent victim.

LOOKING TO GET OUT – CineVegas presented a rare, newly re-mastered director's cut of Hal Ashby’s 1982 movie starring Jon Voight, who also co-wrote the film.  In this comedy caper, Voight portrays a NYC gambler who loses a lot of money in a poker game and accompanied by his best friend (Burt Young) heads off to Vegas to try and win it back.

On Monday evening June 15, I headed downtown to Fremont street for an outdoor event titled CineVegas Under the Stars that featured a screening of the 1950’s cult horror classic ATTACK OF THE 50’ WOMAN, which only goes to prove there is nothing more dangerous than a woman scorned.

The most anticipated events on the CineVegas schedule are the informal conversations with stars and filmmakers who are honored for their artistic achievement in the film industry.  This year, two actors and a pair of director brothers received recognition. Recipient of the Marquee Award was Oscar winning actor Jon Voight for his artistic excellence, professional accomplishment, and dedication to cinema, and Willem Dafoe who was honored with the Vanguard Actor Award for his distinctive mark and brave performances in films. The Vanguard Director Award was given to maverick filmmakers, The Kutchar Brothers (George and Mike) in recognition of their unique vision and ability to make films without compromise.

On separate occasions, during the afternoon of Sunday, June 14 each of the honorees sat down for a conversation in front of a packed theatre prior to a screening of one of their films. Later in the evening the honorees were presented with their awards at a ceremony at Rain Nightclub in The Palms  that was hosted by TV personality Maria Menudos.  Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago were also honored with the Planet Illogica Award for Excellence in New Media.
Maria Menudos (right) and friend

Jon Voight was the first honoree to be interviewed.  Everyone was expecting him to talk about his career and impressive body of work.  However, the discussion centered on his 1982 film  Lookin to Get Out, that was filmed in Las Vegas and would be screened immediately after the conclusion of his Q &A.


Seated alongside Voight was moderator Nick Lawson, author of a book about the film’s director, late Hal Ashby; Ashby’s daughter Leigh, and the film’s co-writer Al Schwartz. Voight wanted everyone to know that “when the film was originally released, fifteen minutes was cut. It was not cohesive and butchered. The studio did not give the movie the attention it should have been given. Hal went back and reworked every scene as a gift to us, his daughter, and to all of us. This version (being shown for the first time in front of a theatre audience) is what Hal Ashby saw from the beginning”.

Jon Voigt and Al Schwartz

Voight said being in Las Vegas “brings back memories”. In promoting the film, he went on to say, “I feel the movie is a strong piece. There are good performances from all. The relationships are based on chemistry between the two (lead) characters. I wish (the late) Burt Young was here. He was a very smart, a great artist.  Voight went on, “I always felt there was a message in the movie”.  He explained that director Ashby’s daughter did not know her father. Like Voight’s character, he left when she was five years old and was determined not to see her. On an interesting note, Voight’s real life daughter Angelina Jolie, who was a child in 1982, played his daughter in the film and they, too, have a strained relationship.

Next up was Vanguard Award recipient Willem Dafoe’s conversation with NPR film critic Elvis Mitchell in which the actor spoke candidly about his background, acting technique, film career, and experience working with renowned filmmakers. This Q & A was immediately followed by a screening of Dafoe’s first starring role in the 1982 film The Loveless.

Willem DaFoe and Judy Thorburn

The following are some of the highlights from Dafoe’s conversation.

“I grew up in the Midwest, in a happy but insulated environment. When I started to travel I got excited about being around people with different experiences and stories that weren’t told. That is what I gravitated towards”.

“Fantasies are most potent for me. I tend to go towards those that scare me. Actors are generally the best when they are off balance and scared. Taboo stories create dialogue that we don’t talk about. These are the ones that give you a little tickle.

“I think about the environment when working with people on a project.  I am more a performer than an actor.  So much of my relationship with a director has to do with trust. Being in the room with interesting people is what I look for. I remember director William Friedkin he said he could cast me (in Live and Die in LA) because no one knows who you are and you can enter the story.”

“On choosing the first film you do, people can see where you, as an actor, are going. It is good to go back to your old work. However, I try to trick myself into what I am (presently) working on as if it is the first time. I don’t want to think about the past. A lesson will come out in your body and instincts. You have to recreate it every time. I feel I am happy when I am a little off balance. I feel less about interpreting than doing things. I like the idea of disappearing into the simplicity of the gesture.  That is where the truth is revealed.  Motion creates inspiration, not the other way around.  Sometimes it is as simple as a great costume to get you going.”

“When you are working every day (on the set of a movie) it is easier to melt into the story. The character starts to invade your dreams.  On and off camera moments get smeared. My favorite situation is working every day like an old ox.”

“What motivates me is the feeling of being engaged, useful, and that I feel connected. (I like) playful dialogue.  I go to movies to be inspired and be moved so when I walk out (of the theatre) I need to be nicer to people.”

About starring in Last Temptation of Christ:

“It was very memorable. I was in every frame. It was shot in Morocco on a low budget and a lot was demanded of me physically. David Carradine gave the book to Barbara Hershey (who co-starred in the film) and the film would not have been made if that had not occurred.  It (the role) was an actor’s dream in that it is about a regular guy put into miraculous situations and circumstances. I am getting a déjà vu reaction with my new movie titled “Anti Christ” that opened in Cannes before even seeing it. I invited myself into that project. The director hadn’t even considered me.”

Regarding the film Platoon:

“I thought the movie would not be made. I thought it would wind up in the video stores.  It did not have the necessary ingredients such as recognizable stars. Luckily it was strong enough and had good advertising.  But it wouldn’t be there (successful) if it didn’t have possibility.”

“I tend to like “crazy” filmmakers who are just dying to make their movie from their heart and from experience and not worried about the audience. To be involved and have a personal attachment; heroics is what I enjoy most.”

On a most interesting note, in mentioning his role as a drug dealer in the film Light Sleeper, Dafoe said “If my life was different, I could have been this guy”.

Thankfully for both him and his fans, his life took another more fruitful, rewarding path in which he has received acclaim as one of our finest actors.

Festival winners who received awards in several categories include: Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s EASIER WITH PRACTICE, which received the Grand Jury Prize; GODSPEED (an intense, dramatic thriller set in the lingering light of the Alaskan midnight sun) was acknowledged with an Exceptional Artistic Achievement Award for Cory Knauf, Joseph McKelheer and Robert Saitzyk; and Jeff Mizushima with the Filmmaker to Watch Award for his film ETIENNE! (About a dwarf hamster named Etienne, diagnosed with terminal cancer, whose owner takes him on a bicycle road trip up the California coast to show it the world before he must put it to sleep).

The Documentary Jury Award went to Douglas Tirola’s ALL IN: THE POKER MOVIE, which focuses on why one of our nation’s oldest games has had a renaissance in the past decade and why, for so many people, poker is a way to chase the American Dream.

BEETLE QUEEN CONQUERS TOKYO, directed by Jessica Oreck, was awarded with a Special Documentary Jury Prize for Artistic Vision. The documentary delves into the mystery of Japan’s cultural obsession with bugs.

Destin Daniel’s Short TERM 12 received the CineVegas Short Film Jury Prize while Justin Nowell’s Acting for the Camera won a special Grand Jury Prize in Directing. Markus Kirschner’s COMMUNION was acknowledged with the CineVegas Nevada Short Film Jury Prize.

THE REVENANT, a vampire buddy movie, was chosen  by CineVegas audiences to receive  the CineVegas Dramatic Audience Award, and WINNEBEGO MAN received the CineVegas Documentary Audience Award.

Jack Rebney’s outrageously funny outtakes from a Winnebago sales video became an underground phenomenon and made him an Internet superstar. In Winnebago Man, filmmaker Ben Steinbauer sets out to find him.

That concludes my coverage of CineVegas 2009.  I want to thank Kelly Frey and her staff at CineVegas for doing a great job and trying their best to accommodate the attending press. It is truly appreciated.   I am already looking forward to attending next year’s CineVegas.

Now, don’t believe those words,   if it happens in Vegas it stays in Vegas.  Like every movie event in Vegas, if it happens at CineVegas you will read about it here.

For more information on the CineVegas Film Festival visit

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