Monday, January 15, 2007

My indie film weekend

For people who complain about the lack of culture in Las Vegas, this weekend was a great example of how far the development of film culture has come here in the last few years. On Friday night, I went over to the Tropicana Cinemas to see Bobcat Goldthwait's Sleeping Dogs Lie, part of the debut week of CineVegas' new Arthouse Screening Series. There weren't all that many people at the showing I attended - probably 10 at most, although it was the final show of the evening, and the second for which Goldthwait showed up to do a Q&A. It did look like there were more people coming out of the previous showing as we waited for the doors to open. So maybe the turnout for this event is small right now (friends who went to see Sherrybaby earlier that evening said there were only six people in the theater), but the fact that it exists at all is a huge step for alternative film in Vegas, and I have hope that the management of the Tropicana is willing to stick with these films beyond the initial tryout period of four weeks as awareness and (hopefully) attendance grows.

As for the movie itself, it was funny and sweet, although certainly rough around the edges from a technical perspective. Goldthwait is a good writer but maybe a shaky director - the camera work was rudimentary and the lighting often harsh and unflattering. And while Melinda Page Hamilton was very good in the lead role of a woman whose life falls apart when she reveals her past dalliance with bestiality to her family, some of the other actors (particularly Bryce Johnson as her fiancé) were less effective. But Goldthwait gets credit for taking on a taboo subject with humor and an open mind, even if I wasn't all that crazy about the film's ultimate message (that it's better to lie about some things to our loved ones to avoid hurting them and to inspire ourselves to live up to the images we create). At least he's got a point of view to go along with the dog-blowing jokes. And he was humble and grateful and very friendly in the conversation afterward, thanking the whole small crowd for showing up and talking about the ups and downs of no-budget filmmaking.

On Saturday and Sunday I went to the Cinemark/Century 16 at the Suncoast and saw two movies at the Las Vegas Celebration of Jewish Film, a festival now in its sixth year that not all that many people in Vegas know about. The organizers do a great job of marketing to the Jewish community, having each film sponsored by a different local Jewish group, and thus the attendance is strong, but I don't think many film fans outside of that community are aware of the festival and the fact that it brings interesting and diverse movies to Vegas that are worth seeing by anyone with an interest in film. I saw Live and Become, which has no distribution in the U.S. at the moment, and The Syrian Bride, a popular Israeli film that is available here on DVD. Both were good but flawed explorations of the consequences of complex Mideast politics, taking big, contentious issues and filtering them through the perspectives of everyday people.

Live and Become, about a Christian Ethiopian boy who passes himself off as a Jew so that he can seek asylum in Israel along with other Ethiopian Jews, was very powerful in its first hour, with the boy as a 9-year-old trying to adjust to life in this incredibly foreign land while hiding his identity. But director and co-writer Radu Mihaileanu wants to encompass the entire story of the Ethiopian Jews with the film, and thus spans 15 years in the life of the main character, watching him grow up, finish school and get married. The film takes on more than it can handle, and the developments in the second half often feel rushed and sort of contrived. Still, the scope is admirable and many of the moments are quite powerful.

The Syrian Bride is broader and more mainstream, with a lot of soap opera in its story of a sprawling Druze family coming together for the marriage of their daughter/sister/aunt to a Syrian actor. In this case, I actually found the final third, after the wedding celebration and all of the soapy family drama, more interesting, as the family deals with the complex and surreal bureaucracy that surrounds the relationship between Syria and Israel and their competing claims on the Golan Heights. The family dynamics were familiar from countless other movies, but combined with the political absurdities, they made for something new, at least for parts of the film.

Even if I didn't love any of these films, simply the opportunity to see them (as well as other films in the CineVegas series and at the Jewish Film Festival) is cause for celebration, and evidence that Vegas actually has a quietly thriving alternative film scene if you know where to look. I hope I can do my best to point people in that direction.

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