Viva Las Vegas Film Festival
As a filmmaker, I’ve attended many film festivals either with a film in the festival or just as a movie and filmmaker looking to network with other filmmakers. I’ve attended film festivals such as Sundance, Slamdance, LA Film Festival, AFI, Valley Film Festival and the IFP Market in NY. I missed out on the most well known film festival in Las Vegas, Cine Vegas. For whatever reason, the festival has taken place in a while either because of funding, the loss of Dennis Hopper or both.
The Las Vegas Film Festival, in it’s fourth year, ran July 15 – 17th for the second year in a row at the Hilton. I met Milo Kostelecky, the festival director of operations, as I went to the first function that I thought I could attend with my all access film pass. Apparently, the all access pass did not include the networking dinner at Piero’s Restaurant. He mentioned it cost $95. I’m a filmmaker. I don’t have that kind of money. So, after parking my car through the valet, I was outside again in five minutes to pick up my car. In-and-out! While waiting for my car, some employees were hanging out. One older gentleman asked me what the function was inside. I told him it involved a film festival. The man then informed me that his son had a film that was in Sundance. Really? I handed the man a flyer for an upcoming event I’m having with RAW Artists, screening a short film. Then the valet driver wanted to know what I handed the other employee so I handed him a flyer too. That night wasn’t a total loss. I was planning on dropping off flyers at Emergency Arts cafe and gallery off Fremont St. anyway. Not expecting much, I was very impressed with the LV Film Festival. Milo has done a fine job putting this festival together.
OPENING NIGHT – “The Story”
The first film I saw was the opening night premiere, “The Story” directed by Ski Channel’s Steve Bellamy. It was a very entertaining and insightful feature documentary about outgoing adventurers seeking to climb the highest mountains such as Mt. Everest and skiing down the steepest, most impossible mountains. The film stars many of the top winter athletes and features Olympic Gold Medalists Bode Miller and Lindsay Vonn. One very touching story involved a woman who had lost her legs. Well, don’t let that stop her. She had a special sky created so she could still ski. Another mountain skier extremist seemed to have a death-wish, jumping off ridiculously steep and high cliffs. Don’t try this at home or on any mountain top.
There was a festival party at a club on the Vegas Strip hosted by Michael Madsen. I was somewhat tired and discovered that there was an additional feature film screening that night at the Hilton. I am so glad I stayed! The film, “Oxy Morons” was a last minute addition to the festival. The filmmaker, Johnny Hickey, lived this twisted life in Charlestown, an area of Boston, Massachusetts, where bank robbing was a typical occurrence. You might have heard of that other film about Charestown, “The Town,” starring Ben Affleck. ‘Oxy Morons” is inspired by Johnny Hickey’s and his brother’s lives growing up and dealing drugs to survive. The drug that the boys discover is their ticket to making a ton of money is OxyContin. They turn the community onto the drug and eventually the boys land into prison. Their strength to survive is tested on many levels. Johnny had dreams of being an actor before he got deep into crime. Now, Johnny is turning his misfortune into a acting and filmmaking career. The cinematography is a little rough in the first 20 or 30 minutes as everything was handheld, but once the story kicks in you’re hooked and really care about these characters. It’s one of those films that gets better as you’re watching it.
DAY TWO – “Holy Rollers”
The full length film title is officially “Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians.” My first impression of the title and marketing was that the film was going to glorify Christianity in some bizarre way. In actuality, it is a bizarre way to glorify Christianity, because most devote Christians would want nothing to do with playing blackjack or gambling and especially Sin City, Las Vegas. God bless these filmmakers! You never know where a documentary is going to go or if the filmmakers even have a film. The filmmakers realized some time early on that (paraphrasing) ‘Oh, yeah! We’ve got something!’ The Christian card counting team started off innocently enough. It just so happened that the early team members were affiliated with churches. Some members were even ministers. The leader of the team taught the small group how to perfect counting cards. He also taught them tricks on how to behave when playing at the tables. Sometimes the players would spend an hour playing and other times they’d be kicked out within minutes. Once the players had been in a certain casino a few times the casino staff is on to them. The casinos, as you may know, have very sophisticated face-recognizing equipment and camera surveillance. Since the casinos are very sophisticated, the group got wise too. They’d dress up in costumes and disguises to throw off the casino managers, pit bosses and cameras. Their team of Christians grew as the stash grew. Their core Christian beliefs is what kept their trust initially. Whatever money the members made would go into the collective. There was no way to really prove if anyone was stealing from the group or not adding all the winnings. The film showed both the upside and the downfall of the group. It lasted for a while, but perhaps God put his or her foot down. The leader of the group now makes a living teaching blackjack tricks to aspiring gamblers. The film was very well done and very entertaining.
Mob Panel – “Forget about it!”
“Goodfellas,” “Casino,” and “The Godfather.” These are some of the best mob movies ever! The Las Vegas Film Festival managed to get a group of old timers that were very involved with ‘organized crime.’ Even the mobsters don’t like to be referred to as mobsters. The usual suspects included Henry Hill, Frank Cullotta, Meyer Lanksy II, Tony Montanta and Antionette Giancana. The panel was moderated by Lou Martini, Jr. who was in episodes of “The Sopranos.” These ‘wiseguys’ were very open to discussing their lives in depth. The discussion went in so many directions. A woman in the audience who had read a book about Cullotta asked him about being a hitman. Cullotta responded that he was just following orders. He had to kill or be killed. When the panel was asked about how they were treated in prison, Cullotta mentioned that he’d take being in prison in America over anywhere else. He praised the United States. They all had to deal with the Justice system, but they respect the U.S. for being the fair system that it is. Giancana was the liveliest of the group. She was very full of spirit. She even showed up at the Artisan that night to party. Meyer Lansky II said that his famous grandfather was hard to figure out. There was also a discussion about the fact that Meyer Lanksy was not accepted by the Israeli government when he wanted to retire in Israel. I met and talked with Lou Martini, Jr. after the panel ended. Nice guy. To me, it was a thrill to see the real people behind such legendary movie characters. These are the real people that lived the mob life whether they themselves were criminals or just in the family.
Michael Madsen – Indie Icon Award
“Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or or you gonna bite?” – “Reservior Dogs”
After a screening of Michael Madsen’s latest film, “Vice” which he starred in and was the Executive Producer, Actor/Director Ash Adams sat down on stage to interview Michael. Before the interview, Ash screened a video tribute, showcasing all the people Michael has worked with. It was a very interesting and entertaining discussion about Michael’s acting career. Madsen said he didn’t think his career had a chance to go the distance until he was in “Donnie Brasco” (1997), surrounded by Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. Madsen talked about getting advice from his close friend, Dennis Hopper. Madsen was down about his career and tells Hopper maybe he should have been a carpenter. Madsen then repeats what Hopper told him, “Look what happened to him” (referring to Jesus). Although Madsen has portrayed many similar characters, he has been some great films; “Reservior Dogs,” “Kill Bill I & II,” “Donnie Brasco,” “Free Willy” and “The Doors.” Congrats Michael!
“Behind Your Eyes”
OK. This was not one of the better films I had seen. I knew the caliber of films couldn’t stay as good as what I had seen the night before and “Holy Rollers” that morning. The cinematography in “Behind Your Eyes” was good. The acting was pretty good. It was a good ‘bad movie.’ It had an interesting twist. It was watchable and entertaining. This innocent woman goes away for the weekend with her boyfriend. The boyfriend keeps the destination a secret. A stranger abducts them, ties them up and keeps them in this house. He hits the boyfriend with a belt. While the couple escapes, the boyfriend trips and hurts himself…supposedly. The girlfriend runs to a neighbor’s home to seek help. The older couple next door are not what they seem. Their welcoming gets weird. They tie the girl up. It turns out that the boyfriend hired the ‘stranger’ to abduct himself and his girlfriend so that he could offer both the stranger and his girlfriend up to his bizarre parents he left years ago. The stranger is now a victim along with the girlfriend. Again, the twist is interesting, but not a great film.
Shorts – “The Secret Friend”
That night I saw a shorts program. The one stand-out in that program was “The Secret Friend.” An elderly widow lives alone after her husband’s passing. One day her phone rings and no one says anything on the other end. She hangs up. The calls continue and always at 3:30PM. The elderly lady, lonely and desperate to fill the void of her late husband, starts talking through the phone and having a conversation even though no one talks back to her. From then on the phone would ring every day at 3:30PM and she would gladly talk sometimes for hours on end. She’d be knitting away and staring at the clock each day waiting until 3:30PM. One day her phone did not ring and it was passed 3:30PM. Days went by and no phone calls. With the phone book on the table, the elderly woman decides one day to call someone else. She doesn’t say anything. She just lets the receiver carry their own conversation just as she did. Paying it forward. This was a very sweet tale. It makes you feel for all those people that live alone and don’t have anyone to speak to.
After the shorts program in the Hilton Theater, I walked towards the nearby Tempo Lounge and there’s Lou Martini, Jr. He asks me if I’m going to the Artisan. He mentioned taking a cab and at the same time he asked me about getting a lift and I offered to take him. So, now I’m taking a ‘Soprano’ to an after party. You never know where the day takes you. Lou played Anthony Infante under Johnny in the NY ‘crew’ on “The Sopranos.” It was an interesting party. It wasn’t a crazy, film festival, raunchy party although there was a busty chick in a bikini who finally ripped off her top and swam around the pool topless. That’s always a plus. I had a brief conversation with Antionette (mobster panel). She actually told me that the girl was too big to be wearing a bikini. I told her that I liked women with a little meal on their bones and besides that busty bikini girl took pride in herself to wear the bikini. The girl was not fat, but Antionette was probably very accustomed to women being of a proper size and wearing the proper things. After all, she’s a lady that could get whatever she wanted. I just hope I didn’t piss her off. Perhaps I should lay low for a while. It was a nice party. I met some people. I actually ran into someone I knew.
It’s still very disheartening that the film community here in Las Vegas doesn’t attend their own film festivals. A few people I recognized were present throughout the event, but how do these people expect to go anywhere if they’re not out there meeting people. People from all over the world come here to Vegas to screen films and network. You don’t even have to go far. It’s in our backyard.
Day Three – “Virgin Alexander”
What ever happened to Balky? Remember “Perfect Strangers”? Bronson Pinchot is now doing something ‘perfectly strange’…giving handjobs to guys in this cheesey, wannabee a good feel movie. Yes, this was another bad movie. It takes a lot for me to walk out on a movie especially if I have an all access film pass. I stayed until the end for this movie. It was a very bad script. First draft? The actors were not funny. It’s about a young male virgin, ‘ALEXANDER,’ in his mid-2o’s who’s grandfather leaves him his house until the grandson discovers it’s going into foreclosure in ten days. He meets this girl who becomes a call girl in order to raise money for college. Pinchot is her pimp. Eventually Alexander and the girl set up a brothel in Alexander’s house in order for both of them to raise the money they need. It was pretty dumb and not funny. The best part of the film shocked the hell out of me. Here’s this really quiet guy playing the lead male virgin. His deadpan ‘paleface’ expressions actually reminded me of Buster Keaton in a good way. The actor steps out onto a floor after the film part is over. He then starts tap dancing like nobody’s business. WHAT? Why didn’t they change the character to a dancer instead of a piano player? Are you kidding me? So, I’m getting lunch at the Pizza Hut at the Hilton. On my way back I recognize the actor on a poster and his name, Rick Faugno. He’s in “Jersey Boys” playing at the Hilton. It doesn’t take one too long to figure how that film got in. Who knows? Maybe the screeners didn’t know who he was. It wasn’t the worst film I’ve seen and certainly not the worst film at this festival. That film came later in the day.
WOW! Every now and then comes a feature film documentary that actually makes a difference in the world. Director Lauren Parsekian set out with a girlfriend to travel across America to interview hundreds of women about ‘mean girls.’ Lauren and her friend would visit middle schools and high schools. They’d get a group of the girls together to discuss being victims and being bullies too. A truth box was set up so girls could talk straight to the camera in privacy to talk about their feelings. In groups and classes the director and her friend passed out apology notes so girls could apologize to each other. The girls did exactly that. It was a very powerful and moving occurrence. They interviewed mothers that went through the same issues. The film often mentions how men are different then women in the fact that they abuse each other one minute and they’re friends the next. Girls and women often don’t work that way. With women, their appearance and social standing are critical to surviving their school years. Much of what the girls go through lives on in adulthood. A lot of the reasons girls become bullies is because they’re either taught it at home are because of something going on in their home that makes them that way. Bullies are often bullied at home so they look for others to bully while at school.
This documentary not only achieved critical acclaim and is being picked up for a theatrical run in NY and LA, it’s gone above and beyond expectations. Lauren Parsekian has started the Kind Campaign which is an educational program for girls teaching them about bullying. Parsekian is going to additional schools with the Kind Campaign and hopes to take it to every school in America. This film really did a fine job of hitting an increasing issue in America at a much needed time as more and more teens are being bullied and committing suicide. Bullying has been around for ages, but social media has recently taken it all to unbelievable levels. I highly recommend seeing “Finding Kind.”
Shorts – “Misdirection”
The standout from the last shorts program that I saw was “Misdirection.” I can see why it’s won some awards at other international film festivals. Peter, the grandson of the legendary magician, Castulo the Magnificent, discovers the real magic behind a set of secret cards his grandfather has. Evil magicians are out there in the world trying to track down these secret cards and it’s up to Peter to stop the cards from getting into the wrong hands. This was a very clever story told extremely well with some visual effects that truly added magic to the film. It had very good acting and direction.
“The Encore of Tony Duran”
“The Encore of Tony Duran” starring Gene Pietragallo, Elliot Gould and an unrecognizable Willam Katt had a lot of charm. Pietragallo plays Tony, a fat, washed up, divorcee who doesn’t have $2 to his name. Tony borrows money from his own hard-working son and more money from a wealthy old comedian friend for one last get quick rich scheme. He doesn’t tell them how he’s going to triple the money. He stupidly takes the money to a known drug dealer in the middle of no where and tries to get him to help him make a drug deal. Well, the drug dealer, played by Katt, makes him feel small and useless by stealing his money and scaring him away. Tony’s friend, Gould, forces him to sing in front of a room of senior citizens to boost his confidence as Tony once had a dream to be a singer. Well, part of the deal for Tony was to lose 40 pounds. Tony purposely doesn’t see his son for months while training to sing and lose the weight. His son sees him for the first time when Tony is performing at the gig his friend set him up for. During the production, Pietragallo really lost 40 pounds. The actor playing his son had not seen him during all that time so that when they filmed their meeting it would be authentic and it was. This was a sweet little movie about losing one’s way and then finding it again with the help of friends and family. This was a good film to end the festival with. Hell, it’s got ‘encore’ right in the title.
Overall, I had a great experience at the Las Vegas Film Festival. Of course, the festival had its kinks, but all festivals have that no matter how long they’ve been running. Viva Las Vegas Film Festival!
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