CineVegas '05 Celebrates Vegas' Centenary with Growing Presence
by Brian Brooks
Quite honestly, part of the appeal traveling so frequently to festivals is their locations. Taking in new cinema at diverse locations throughout the year -- well, there are worse gigs, even if, as is often the case, a huge chunk of that time is spent in a room tied to a computer. Las Vegas can easily lay claim as one of the world's favorite travel destinations. All cheese and bad hair aside, the town is definitely a sensory intoxicant that almost anyone can appreciate -- at least in small doses. Perhaps the truly most shocking thing about Vegas is that it's one of America's fastest growing regions, and yet, there's absolutely no logical reason why it should even exist with its naturally inhospitable climate and geography. Thank the money gods for rampant Old West individualism, and an activist federal government under FDR's New Deal willing to finance Hoover Dam, thereby creating a "plentiful" water source in the form of Lake Mead. With lax gaming rules, and a celebration of the hedonistic side of life, Vegas today has turned into a city of nearly 480,000 with another 900,000 in surrounding areas, creating a huge red-blooded American sprawl best appreciated atop one of the many high rise casinos that line the famous Strip.
The population further swells with more than 37 million visitors visiting the city in 2004, according to University of Nevada, Las Vegas statistics, and they come armed with lots of cash and credit cards, spending nearly $34 billion there the same year. Las Vegas' 1,271 places holding gaming licenses surely attract huge attention, and dollars, from visitors, as do the plethora of 24 hour buffets, bars, cabarets (and such), shopping, and over the top stage shows. During CineVegas, held June 10-18, Jerry Seinfeld and Gladys Knight were among the many offerings, in addition to several versions of the famous Cirque de Soleil at various hotels. With so much waiting to massage one's pursuit of pleasure in a relatively small area, CineVegas will probably never be to Las Vegas what say Sundance is to Park City, or the Maui Film Festival is to Wailea, but it certainly attracted large numbers to its large and comfortable screenings, and staged a commanding performance at the uber-trendy Palms Casino Resort. The hotel made its splash into the pop culture psyche as the host of seven strangers "picked to live in a penthouse" during season 12 of MTV's still popular "Real World" series, and today hosts E! Entertainment's "Party at the Palms" with Jenny McCarthy. The resort seems to relish its role as hotel d'jour for the young, with Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girls" and Jesse McCartney's "She's No You" playing over the hotel's rotation. As one festival attendee said, "I expect to see Jessica Simpson wander in from the pool here."
Most Palms guests probably did not fly in to attend CineVegas, but the event most certainly attracted attention. Eyeing my badge, many people stopped to ask me directions "to the festival," and wondered if I had made a film. "No, I'm just covering the festival," I said, eyes cast down. Of course, screenings had some regulars of the festival circuit, including filmmakers, press and some industry. I noticed execs from THINKFilm, Magnolia Pictures and Samuel Goldwyn among them, but audiences also were made up of a large cross-section of the curious, who undoubtedly found themselves unknowingly smack in the middle of a film festival -- and a rapidly growing one.
CineVegas opened with a gala screening of Craig Brewer's Sundance 2005 award-winner, "Hustle & Flow." Cast members Taryn Manning, Taraji Henson, DJ Qualls and Paula Jai Parker joined producer John Singleton for a walk down the red carpet in the Palms food court adjacent to the Brenden Theatres, attracting casino patrons. Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. also joined the festivities for the film about a Memphis street hustler who struggles to fulfill his dreams of becoming a celebrated rapper, ushering open the fest, which included ten world premieres among its 63-title roster.
"We have been very lucky to have some great world premieres come out of the festival in the past, and [in] this year in particular," said CineVegas director of programming, Trevor Groth to indieWIRE. "Because of this, I believe we are now considered a legitimate place to discover new independent films and launch new studio films."
Groth, a lead programmer at the Sundance Film Festival, has been quite a boon to the event, helping to entrench CineVegas as a festival circuit mainstay. He also views the two festivals as serving separate niches. "Sundance is an established force in the film community and we are constantly working to remain that way by evolving ahead of expectations, while CineVegas is still carving out its place. I'm enjoying the process of watching it grow and seeing people discover what we are all about."
Two world premieres in particular received special accolades at CineVegas this year. Writer/director Antonio Campos' "Buy It Now" received the fest's Audience Award. The film follows the story of Chelsea Magan, who decides to sell her virginity online to the highest bidder, presented as both a documentary and a narrative. Fellow world debut, "In Memory of My Father," meanwhile took the Grand Jury Prize. "Memory," according to the fest catalog, is a "day-in-the-death story of a once-legendary film producer who has slipped into irrelevance and lives out his final days in his Hollywood Hills mansion, while his three sons struggle to understand their relationship with him and each other."
Tribeca '05 honoree "Red Doors" by writer/director Georgia Lee took a Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting, a well-deserved nod. The film, beautifully acted by Jacqueline Kim, Tzi Ma, Freda Foh Shen, Kathy Shao-Lin Lee, Elaine Kao, and Rossif Sutherland, follows the travails of a suburban New York Chinese-American family dealing with various stages of life's passages, including retirement, marriage, teen angst and love dramas. I saw the film during its Tuesday afternoon screening time-slot, and despite the time (this was the film's second showing) the theater was full, and many stayed after for Q&A with Georgia Lee.
CineVegas attracted a nice spectrum of celebs this year, who came out for honors. Actor Christopher Walken received the Marquee Award. Two of the festival's creative advisory board members, Dennis Hopper and former New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell joined actors Laurence Fishburn and Joe Pesci for the event, which included an informal discussion highlighting Walkens' career, moderated by Mitchell. Legendary actress Ann-Margret received the fest's Centennial Award the following night, with Tony Curtis presenting the honor, while Nicolas Cage took the "Half-Life Award" 24 hours later. Samantha Morton also won a "Half-Life Award" on the final Friday of the festival, and directors George A. Romero ("Night of the Living Dead") and Wim Wenders ("Buena Vista Social Club") were each presented the Vanguard Director Award.
Planning a night party for CineVegas must be a daunting challenge considering the competition, but this year's soirees were spectacular. Vegas Magazine's second anniversary party at the Green Valley Ranch was particularly spectacular, held at the Green Valley Ranch (not a great name for such a fab place) resort ten miles from the Strip. Late night, fest-goers often headed up to the Palms' Ghost Bar on the top floor of the hotel, which boasts an amazing outdoor patio with breathtaking views. Apologies if this sounds like an ad for the venue, but it really is unique.
Las Vegas has evolved from backwater to sin city, to family-wannabe destination, and back again to sin city, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. On Monday of the festival, some attendees discussed the acquittal of Michael Jackson, rumored to have been offered a Celine Dion-style gig at the new Wynn hotel. Vegas has long proven itself a treasure-trove for both current and has-been superstar live acts. Certainly Vegas' century-long winning streak will embrace a growing film festival in its glitzy midst.