Sunday, June 19, 2005

CineVegas wrap-up

This was my third year covering the festival, and I managed to see 16 movies in nine days, five more than I saw last year. Of course, there were still plenty of movies that I missed out on, including ones that were intriguing but I just couldn't fit into my schedule, and others that I heard buzz on and would have liked to see but I was already committed to movies I agreed to review in advance. Overall, the festival gets bigger every year, and it's heartening in a town like this to see almost every screening completely packed, and tons of people walking around with locals passes or tickets that they bought rather than just filmmakers, press and sponsors. At the same time, the increased popularity means that some screenings were very hard to get into. I got in line an hour before showtime on a number of popular screenings, many of which only showed one time. I think one of the problems is that the festival is in this in-between phase where it's not yet popular enough to attract an audience based solely on the movies it premieres, so the organizers make deals with distributors to show popular movies from other festivals, but then those deals probably don't allow for more than one showing.

I was disappointed that the best movies I saw - The Aristocrats, Hustle & Flow, Murderball - were all those aforementioned festival favorites that all have distribution already. I'm glad I saw them, and it's good to have them in the festival, but I could see them all when they're released in Vegas over the next couple of months. What I'd really love to see at a festival like this is random obscure movies that are good that I'd never see otherwise. But most of the premieres and movies without distribution that I saw were either bad or mediocre at best. The most interesting was Buy It Now, a strange combination of pseudo-documentary and traditional narrative, whose first half was amazingly good and whose second half just kind of ruined what came before it. Still, the overall effect was a little underwhelming, and none of the other smaller films came even close to that level of quality. I think I might have just picked the wrong movies to review - I heard buzz about a number of smaller movies that I didn't get to see - and next year I should maybe strike a better balance between seeing unknown films and ones that I've heard things about but could catch later in regular release.

I was also disappointed that Standing Still and Vegas Baby, the two films that were produced by local production company Insomnia Entertainment, were so terrible. Unlike most local filmmakers, Insomnia has real financial backers and professional movie people, and they were able to attract some actual mid-level name actors for their two movies and afford pretty high production values. But both movies are poorly written and sloppily edited, and Vegas Baby in particular is just awful, a slapdash juvenile comedy that looks like something you'd find in the cut-out bin at Blockbuster. It's unfortunate that essentially the one local production company with enough money and experience to make real movies with a chance of national distribution is turning out such uninspired crap. After writing negative reviews of both movies, I got an irate e-mail from the head of the company and producer of both movies, calling me "another jealous reporter" and "just a very small time local writer who obviously has some serious jealously [sic] issues." Like nearly everyone who writes me hate mail about a review, he accused me of knowing nothing about movies and being jealous of people who make them. Sadly, his e-mail was about as original as his films.

I learned this year that staying for post-film Q&A sessions is always a bad idea. Toward the beginning of the festival I left before the Q&As because I had to get to another movie quickly or I just thought the film was bad and didn't care what the director had to say about it. But I made the mistake of sticking around for the Q&A for Buy It Now, and after two or three questions I couldn't take it anymore. The kinds of people who ask questions at these things end up telling their entire life story or spending three mintues formulating some obscure question designed to show off how erudite they are that the director then can't even answer. It's painful. Even the awards presentations that I went to - one for Christopher Walken and one for Wim Wenders - were pretty much wastes of time, as the discussions were mostly awkward and unilluminating. Of course I skipped any and all parties and again affirmed my philosophy that I just want to watch movies and not talk to anybody.

On the positive side, one of my favorite films from last year's festival and winner of the Grand Jury Prize, The Talent Given Us, is finally getting a limited release. It opened in New York this week and will be heading to other cities eventually, although there is no word whether it will open in Vegas yet. Roger Ebert just raved about it on his show this week (although Roeper gave it a thumbs down), and it seems to be getting mostly positive reviews. More than anything else, I think, the commercial and critical success of a movie that premiered at CineVegas and won its Grand Jury Prize will help bring legitimacy to the festival.

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