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07/02/08 CineVegas 2008

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Judy Thorburn

CineVegas Film Festival 2008 at the Brendan Theatres in the Palms Casino Resort Celebrates Tenth Anniversary

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CineVegas Film Festival 2008 at the Brenden Theatres in the Palms Resort and Casino Celebrates Tenth Anniversary

Filmmakers, film buffs, celebrities and members of the press converged in Las Vegas for The 10th Annual CineVegas film festival that kicked off on June 12th at the Brenden Theatres inside the very hip Palms Casino Resort, and wrapped up on June 21 with the premiere of “THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD” starring John Malkovich as a mentalist (inspired by the real life Amazing Kreskin) and Colin Hanks as his personal assistant, followed by a closing night/Vegas Magazine 5th Anniversary after party bash, poolside at the luxurious Palazzo Resort and Casino.

The line up of independent films chosen by CineVegas artistic director Trevor Groth were listed in the following categories: Jackpot Premieres, Diamond Discoveries, Pioneer Documentaries, Sure Bets, La Proxima Ola (highlighting the next wave of Mexican films and directors), Area 51, Vegas Uncovered, and of course, a Shorts program.

As part of its 10th anniversary celebration, six actors; Anjelica Huston, Don Cheadle, Rosario Dawson, Viggo Mortenson, and Sam Rockwell, who have made a significant contribution to the film industry, were honored with awards. In addition, actor James Caan was honored with the Festival’s special Vegas Icon Award, for embodying the spirit of Las Vegas and for delivering memorable performances in work that was set in the city. Each received their award at the Honorees Awards Ceremony and Reception on Friday evening, June 20 poolside at Planet Hollywood. Entertainment Tonight’s Tony Potts acted as host and the surprise guest was Robert DuVall who introduced his friend, former co-star and this year’s Marquee Award recipient, Angelica Huston.

This was my seventh year I’ve attended the annual festival, but unlike previous years, the local press, including yours truly, (according to what I was told) was granted a press badge that allowed for only limited access to the line up of scheduled films. That meant I could request one film ticket per day and, it was not easy deciding what film to choose on a given day from the eclectic array of those being screened. That being the case, I still managed to take in fourteen films over the course of the festival including special morning screenings designated just for the press, as well as attending several of the daily evening after parties that were held at venues such as Dos Caminos at the Palazzo, Blush at Wynn, Tao Beach at the Venetian, The Beatles Revolution Lounge, Vintage Vegas Party at the Downtown Cocktail Room, and all of the conversations with film stars that were being honored with awards.

In addition to the regular screenings and after parties, there were special screenings including a charity screening of GET SMART at the Venetian to benefit Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's 'Rock Foundation', and Takashi Murakami’s PLANTING THE SEEDS at Wynn, a special downtown drive-in screening of the oldie thriller THEM, numerous red carpet events attended by filmmakers and their stars, and daily happy hour parties in the CineVegas lounge/headquarters.

Missing were the fascinating and informative live panel discussions by filmmakers which were on the schedule in previous years. Although, pulling from two documentaries (THE COOL SCHOOL and BEAUTIFUL LOSERS) about the arts scene, there was just one panel discussion; Marginal: Art For It’s Own Sake, a conversation with a group of incredible artists whose work spans the last century.

Among the films I was able to secure a ticket to and found most memorable were the following:

Opening Night’s premiere screening of THE ROCKER starring Rainn Wilson (of TV’s The Office) was followed by an after party at Moon Nightclub at the Palms. Trevor Groth was on hand to introduce the film and said he chose this film to set off the festival because it had the right energy. Wilson portrays Robert “Fish” Fishman, the drummer of the fictitious eighties band Vesuvious before he was fired and they became famous. Fast forward to the present and “Fish”, still living in the past, is given a second chance at superstardom after joining his teenage nephew’s band. I found The Rocker to be an entertaining, feel good comedy, with a great message about never being too old to follow your dream. Plus, I was pleased to see that it lacked the usual vulgarity and crudeness that pervades most comedies these days which are targeted at the younger generation. Writer, Ryan Jaffe attended the screening, along with Wilson and fellow cast members, Emma Stone, Jane Lynch and Fred Armison.

My favorite film was DARK STREETS, a stylish, visually stunning musical drama that showcases “blues music”, involves seduction, betrayal and murder and pays homage to the 1930’and 40’s film noire (think Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart). The film stars Gabriel Mann, Bijou Phillips and Elias Koteas and is directed by Rachel Samuels.

The screening was followed by the charity concert at the Palms pool that featured one of the film’s stars, Bijou Phillips and Grammy Award-winning blues musician Chris Thomas King, as well as other musicians from the film’s original soundtrack. Proceeds from the concert went to the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation (LCEF), an organization that provides relief and funds for artists and cultural organizations in Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

EXPLICIT ILLS was another good film that should receive rave reviews. The ensemble cast includes Rosario Dawson (in her best performance yet) and Paul Dano in actor/writer/director Paul Webber’s cross cultural semi-autobiographical, heart wrenching tale revolving around several characters in an urban Philadelphia neighborhood whose lives eventually intersect as a result of their struggle with poverty, drugs, relationships, healthcare, and other social issues.

COCAINE COWBOYS II: HUSTLIN’ WITH THE GODMOTHER is a compelling documentary revolving around the life of African American cocaine kingpin Charles Cosby. Using archival footage and interviews the film encompasses Cosby’s love affair and then volatile relationship with the much older ruthless, murderous, Colombian drug baroness, aka the Cocaine Godmother, Grisella Blanco. Compared to her, Michael Corleone was Mother Theresa.

WOMEN IN BOXES is a fascinating documentary about the lovely ladies who work as magician’s assistants. Interviews with wives, lovers and daughters of master illusionists paint a revealing portrait of the women who deserve more recognition than they’ve been given.

The CineVegas pocket guide describes WELLNESS as being about a man trying to succeed in a business that doesn’t exist. More specific, the film exposes the unethical business practices of desperate salesmen trying to make a buck and uses a pyramid scheme as the basis.

Other memorable films include Abel Ferrara’s GO GO TALES which stars Willem Dafoe as the owner of a strip club whose gambling habit puts him at risk of losing his business, and SHE UNFOLDS BY DAY, about a mother slowing developing Alzheimer’s, her grown son in charge of her care who must contend with his own health issues, and his adorable pet dog. The story held my interest with its metaphoric visuals of nature and animals of the wild, that is, until the very disappointing, irresponsible end. But, I must say that fox terrier and his free spirited antics stole the picture and my heart!

One of the neat things about CineVegas is the chance for regular, non movie industry folks to hear distinguished film stars talk about their career in person during moderated conversations that are open to the public.

On Friday, June 20, Don Cheadle, one of the recipients of the Half Life Award for the impressive body of work he has built thus far in his career, was the first actor to sit down for an insightful conversation. I found him to be intelligent, eloquent and down to earth. During his talk with moderator Elvis Mitchell, Cheadle discussed several of his film roles including a somewhat humorous anecdote during work on “Colors” opposite T-Bone, a real life gangbuster. “I had to tell him “shut the f-ck up” in one scene and he took it seriously. I had to yell “It’s only a movie”, said Cheadle.

Asked if he would like to do comedy, the actor went on to say. “I can do comedy as well. I did stand up, literally, for three nights at an open mic in Denver. It was the worst thing dying on stage with no one to pass the blame to. I would rather hide within a character.”

About embodying a character: “For every character that I do, I gravitate to something about the energy that feels like me. There is so much about the rhythm and the timing. I am a musician and that plays a role. I usually find a picture, photo, painting, a scent, a part of something that sticks with me. For Hotel Rwanda, I chose “The Whisper Song”. There was something about that song that gave me chills. Paul (the real life hotel manager I play) was in a constant state of terror. I was concerned that I missed…didn’t get it right. I played to my predisposed 'nervosity'. Actually, Cuba Gooding, Denzel, Will Smith were the first choices. I was nervous as a whore in church when I got this part. I was nervous knowing that the real guy was on the set. My mantra was do the job…just do the job. Just be a hotel manager. Do what you know what to do to fall back on. Make sure every fork and spoon is in place and my suit is nice. That was the manager’s armor. And with a good script and director it is easier to make all things work.”

Cheadle went on to say he enjoys the process of working with other creative people and finds “the collaborative process always fun”. He also stated that his goal is to take on roles that make people think. In playing Sammy Davis Jr. a social commentary was expressed in a scene with the guys (The Rat Pack) that shows how he really must have felt about allowing himself to continually be the brunt of racial jokes. As for his experience as an African American actor: “Everybody is out for their own in this business. If you are not a white man between 18 and 50 it is hard to get parts. You can’t think this business is immune to prejudice in the world.”

Cheadle latest film is TRAITOR, about an American Muslim who infiltrates a terrorist cell. “Where are his allegiances when it comes to his own country and faith? It is interesting being a character who has to try and figure it all out.”

Next up at 6 p.m. was ruggedly handsome Half Life Award honoree Viggo Mortenson, who, like Cheadle has been nominated for an Oscar and is truly one of the finest actors working today. It was interesting to find out that Mortenson, born in Argentina of Danish decent, is also an artist, photographer and publisher. Before becoming a famous actor he did poetry readings and had gallery showings. He also likes the process of learning languages and speaks several; Spanish, Danish, Italian, some Russian and of course, English. In a revealing dialogue Mortenson went on to say, “As a kid I was into photography before acting. But there was something about movies that I wanted to do. I came to acting pretty late, relatively speaking. In eighth grade I tried to audition for David Copperfield, but was a disaster. As for being an artist, “Everyone is an artist of some kind”.

Lord of the Rings was the film that opened up the door for further casting. “Mostly things have come to me, rather than me having to choose”. About his acting method: “Just play what is happening. Think about where you are in the story. Whatever you are feeling is right. It is addictive thing to fear whatever you are feeling, getting over the fear of screwing up and getting it all wrong. Good performances are ones that are true to life; looks effortless. Performances that really work have people saying, “I can do that”. That’s what you want…people acting like people.”

In immersing himself in a role, Mortenson said “Some things you have to learn about; body language, etc. For Eastern Promises I went to Russia and immersed myself in Russian culture. My upcoming film, THE ROAD is about a man and his son. I could connect with this role, because I have a son.”

Regarding sex or nude scenes: “It is the courage of the director to make it real… to direct and deal with what the scene is about. It is about the compromise people make, and I have worked with great directors.

Asked about being recognized in public and people wanting an autograph, Mortensen responded, “I have developed radar and can tell when people are looking at me. It means I am connecting. It’s cool! The actor admitted to asking for an autograph twice in his life, when he saw former tennis champ Bjorn Born at a tournament and another from basketball great, Bill Russell.

Following the conversation, Mortenson’s Spanish language film ALATRISTE from 2006, a huge hit in Spain, was screened. He said making this film felt like he did when, as kid, he walked out of and old black and white movie and it was a revelation.

On Saturday, Half Life Award honoree, Rosario Dawson arrived at 1 p.m. looking lovely with her hair pulled back and wearing a pretty white sundress for her afternoon conversation in front of a packed theatre. I was impressed by her natural, warm personality. It was clear she is passionate about her work and how social issues are important to her.

Dawson discussed growing up in New York City, the product of a single mother who had her at the age of 16 and her relationships with her parents and a diverse group of family members and characters who left a vivid impression. Although living in an abandoned building from the time she was six, her fairy tale like beginnings in the industry took hold when she was discovered sitting on her front porch at age 15 and was cast in the movie “KIDS”. She worked on the film for four days and made $1,000. It left a great impression. “I was blessed. Kids turned out to be an incredible film. The conversations mirrored my own life. I had tremendous support from my family. The themes were so strong fro me… coming from a teenage mother. Spike (Lee) saw me and cast me in his next film, He Got Game.”

Dawson said she has fallen in love with film projects and how she is moved by the actual material. “I am passionate about the product. I get excited and want to put all my energy into it.” In the movie EXPLICIT ILLS, she plays as mother of a young boy who is “an angel, a beautiful person at age 7”, but she is not capable of raising him. With no money she cannot give him everything he deserves. “I connected with the struggle, being so close with my mom. I bleached my hair to show how poor I was and couldn’t afford to do the roots. I met the writer/director and co-star Mark Webber while filming Chelsea Walls. We bonded during this film. He wrote and directed the script. He wrote about where he came from; drugs, poverty, the people.”

Dawson admitted having a love for graphic novels (her uncle was an artist) which lead to the subject of her concept for a sci fi comic, Crime Task Force, with the lead character that looks like her and created so it can be multi-platformed and made into a game. “I am really excited about jumping into this world. Growing up with artists gave me access.”

After reading the script on a plane for her upcoming film, “7 LBS” co-starring Will Smith, Dawson said, “It was so moving, that I cried. I felt I needed to do this movie. It held the key point till the end. I play a woman with congenital heart disease. At this point in my career I can appreciate who this woman wants to be. Working with Will was incredible. I felt like I really did good work.”

With an already versatile body of work at the age of only 29, Dawson expressed, “I try to represent myself as an artist who is true to herself. You may not like it (my work) but I do hope to get respect. I have a diverse sense of a lot of things and I am glad to be alive. It is fascinating how people see the world around them, but you can choose to make your world.”

Later in the day another Half Life Award recipient Sam Rockwell, a brilliant actor known for assuming the quirkiest of roles (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe, to name a few), sat for a conversation and gave some insight into why he chooses specific roles. “I like characters that are introverted. But I also like to overact. Extraverts and introverts are both fun to play with. Characters should be complicated as we are…drama mixed with comedy. Playing a coward is hard to do. It’s hard on the ego. No one wants to be a coward. We want to be a hero, not Don Knotts (which caused laughter in the audience). Even in a farce, stakes are high. Take, for instance, Bill Paxton in Aliens."

“I play a lot of wacky guys. I am attracted to oddball characters; a career like Jeff Bridges, a leading character actor is what I aspire to. Sometimes, you feel really good about yourself and don’t want to be psychotic, but have to go there. Everybody can relate to my guy in Snow Angels. Everyone has had a broken heart. It’s cathartic, venting, purging, and a big psychological dump! The everyman is a fun thing to do.”

Rockwell said he grew up watching Robert De Niro as part of his filmmaking index. “If you have hero worship, it’s hard to work with that person. You have to know you belong there and get over it and be with them in the moment. For good acting, you have to be uncomfortable and it needs to be dangerous. You have to try to create an improvisational element.”

Growing up, Rockwell’s mom and dad were both actors who did theatre and at ten years of age he was on the stage doing sketch comedy. “Mom was a great comedian with Tracy Ullman, Lilly Tomlin qualities. I learned a lot from watching her. It is always scary to be on stage. It is intense to do. It is bold to think I am important; watch me. It takes different muscles to work on stage. You have to stretch.”

In his Oscar nominated role in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Rockwell played Chuck Barris, the creator/host of the Gong Show who also claimed to be a CIA assassin. “He was charming and likeable when I met him. But, as far as the assassin stuff, you never know with him. I asked if he killed 33 people and he said, “No, I killed twelve”. “As if that made a difference”, Rockwell said jokingly.

Rockwell went on about working with other actors and directors. Gene Hackman, his co-star in David Mamet’s Heist, was “amazing. I learned a lot of cool lessons from him.” Nicholas Cage: “We enjoyed playing together in Matchstick Men.” About Woody Allen: Really nice, but socially awkward. I go into a room to meet him and do an audition and there he was lurking in the corner for the entire audition. Afterwards he comes over and shakes my hand.” David Mamet: I met him at a Beverly Hills hotel. He was really cool! I knew he had a tough guy persona. I told him you need someone to stand up to Gene Hackman.”

It came as a surprise to learn Rockwell “bailed” out of Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jones after boot camp. He put it this way, “I am not big on war films. I did not like the idea of going to Morocco with a bunch of guys. It sounded pretty lonely. I would rather work in Connecticut where it is not so adventurous or to go off to New Zealand for six months.”

Audiences can see Sam Rockwell next on the big screen in FROST, about real life British reporter/TV personality David Frost’s revealing interview with former President Richard Nixon. Rockwell said he had a great time working with director Ron Howard.

Last, but no way least, Oscar winning actress (for her supporting role in Prizzi’s Honor opposite Jack Nicholson) Anjelica Huston participated in a conversation with octogenarian Lillian Ross, staff reporter for the New York Times. Unfortunately, it was hard for Huston to get a word in edge wise, as the elderly journalist spent so much time rambling on about Huston’s father and not giving Angelica much of a chance to discuss her craft in the time allotted.

In spite of it all, Huston, was able to offer some interesting aspects of her craft. “In taking on a character, I must make a series of choices: instincts about her; how she speaks, her actions, and whether I can get under her skin and find the approximate areas where I might find out about the character; if she reminds me of someone I know. Always let the audience in on a secret the other characters don’t know. It’s fun to find an opportunity to do that. For the Grifters, I hung out in casino to get the smell of the grift. I go to those places and sop up the atmosphere and get clues that make sense to me."

Ross noted that Huston’s talent was in her genes. “Sometimes I am aware (of late dad, actor/director John Huston) and I feel myself sounding like my father, especially when I speak on the podium.

What’s it like working with former boyfriend Jack Nicholson? “I like a man that reinvents himself, shows verve and energy, and is inspiring to be around and has passion. I wish the passion he has for The Lakers he had for me. He was a great teacher for me on the set. I also like the way he moves through crowds.”

The actress said she prefers movies to TV because of its slower pace but was seen most recently as a private investigator in TV’s Medium. In her TV experience as co-star in the mini series Lonesome Dove, she said it was “fantastic working with Robert Duvall.” On a comical, inside note, she added, “He knew just what to do to make me laugh in a kissing scene.”

Huston has also shifted gears and taken on the role of director twice, for Bastard Out of Carolina and Agnes Brown. “Bastard came to me after the original director dropped out. I fell in love with the script and never directed before. The first time it was scary to say action but then immersed myself in every detail. It was like collages working with people and scenes. It was blissful making that movie. I felt supported by my father’s ghost. I was told by Turner Broadcasting to take out the rape scene, but that was what the movie is all about; the molestation of a 12 year old by her father. I was told Ted Turner hated the film. I got a call from the Cannes Film Festival with an invitation to show the film and I went from despondence to being thrilled. Eventually Showtime bought the film and kept it intact. With Agnes Brown, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to make a fairy tale. The two experiences directing was great, but the business end was dire.” Maybe Huston should stick within her comfort zone, acting.

Festival winners included SHE UNFOLDS BY DAY, which received the Grand Jury prize; DARK STREETS which received a Special Jury Award; Bill Pullman who received a Special Jury Award for his role in YOUR NAME HERE; ANO UNA (Year of the Nail) garnered the La Proxima Ola Jury Prize; BEAUTIFUL LOSERS awarded Documentary Jury Award; HI, MY NAME IS RYAN won Special Documentary Jury Award; LOST IN THE FOG won the Documentary Audience Award and VISIONEERS received the Dramatic Audience Award. For a complete list of winners, go to

That just about covers it for CineVegas 2008…until next year when the film festival once again kicks into gear and I will do my best to fill you in on the highlights, on and off the big screen.

Photo credit: Stephen Thorburn - unless otherwise noted

Trevor Groth

Dennis Hopper with wife Victoria Duffy
Dennis Hopper with wife Victoria Duffy CineVegas 2008

Rainn Wilson
Rainn Wilson CineVegas 2008

Emma Stone
Emma Stone CineVegas 2008

Jane Lynch
Jane Lynch CineVegas 2008

Fred Armison
Fred Armison CineVegas 2008

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson CineVegas 2008

Rosario Dawson and Judy Thorburn
Rosario Dawson and Judy Thorburn CineVegas 2008

Rosario Dawson and several Explicit Ills cast members
Cast of Explicit Ills

Don Cheadle
Don Cheadle CineVegas 2008
Photo credit: Judy Eddy

Anjelica Huston
Anjelica Huston CineVegas 2008

Photo credit: Judy Eddy

Viggo Mortenson
Viggo Mortenson CineVegas 2008

Photo credit: Judy Eddy

Sam Rockwell
Sam Rockwell CineVegas 2008

James Caan
James Caan CineVegas 2008

Robert Duvall
Robert Duvall CineVegas 2008

Bill Pullman
Bill Pullman CineVegas 2008

Traci Lords
Traci Lords CineVegas 2008

Clifton Collins
Clifton Collins CineVegas 2008

Colin Hanks
Colin Hanks CineVegas 2008


Nathan Burton
Nathan Burton CineVegas 2008

Lou Amundson
Lou Amundson CineVegas 2008

Kyle Howard
Kyle Howard CineVegas 2008

Karina Smirnoff
Karina Smirnoff CineVegas 2008

Janelle Perry
Janelle Perry CineVegas 2008

Delta Goodrem
Delta Goodrem CineVegas 2008

Dave Annable
Dave Annable CineVegas 2008

Willie Garson
Willie Garson CineVegas 2008

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