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10 Ways To Reinvent The CineVegas Film Festival

Time To Live Up To Its Name
by Erik Childress

In 2003, I was contacted by one of the agencies handling the CineVegas Film Festival and asked if our site would come out to cover it. At the time, I viewed this as a tremendous honor – a sign that eFilmCritic had begun to attract some serious attention with the coverage we had brought to both Sundance and South by Southwest some months earlier. (’03 was the first year our staff seriously hit the festival circuit and haven’t looked back.) But we were still in our infancy, so I jumped at the chance to head out to Vegas (as if I needed another excuse) on my own dime to see what the city of sin had to offer in the way of film. I was impressed enough to come back in 2004, which should have been recognized as a turning point in both film quality and throwing some of the best parties in town. In 2005, for the first time in my history of covering fests, a jury actually picked the two films I felt were the true mark of excellence in competition. CineVegas had everything going for it in my book. 2006 was another story though.

It all starts with A-Day for us journalists. Announcement Day. The full list of films playing the fest hits the inbox. And as always the head festival programmer is Trevor Groth, a name many will associate with the similar title at a little festival called Sundance. Over the years CineVegas has always had a “best-of-Sundance” program, although it doesn’t carry that official distinction. In a fest that has grown in quantity over the years and appears to have reached a peak of around 35 scheduled films, anywhere from 5-10 of them had their premiere at Sundance and are on their way to a theatrical release. Many are included in the “Best Bets” section, a title signifying that those who miss the fest will still have the chance to see them theatrically sometime soon. Not sure how the indies without distribution feel about such a tag.

Still, the remainder of the lineup is populated with such productions, many of them world premieres, a few with local connections and always a couple with a definitive Vegas theme. That hasn’t been a bad mix in the past. So why did the 8th Annual CineVegas feel like such a drag this year? The schedule was more than manageable. The parties were hoppin’ and even more diverse than ever. The incredibly friendly staff, headed by Kelly Frey, were as helpful and appreciative as ever. I guess it all comes down to the films themselves and not since my one-and-only trip to Tribeca in ’03 have I walked away so thoroughly unimpressed with the film choices. Of course, I’m just one guy. My colleague, Eric D. Snider, making his second appearance at the fest in as many years, did come away liking a couple more titles than I did. But still nothing approaching the time we had experiencing (the still undistributed) Christopher JaymesIn Memory of My Father the year prior. So why such the long face – even before losing my ass in the sportsbook? In the spirit of gambling, it’s time for CineVegas to take some chances and I want to offer some humble suggestions. After all, you can’t label yourself “The World’s Most Dangerous Film Festival” if you’re unable to throw the dice and live up to it.

Ten suggestions. Just one critic. And I will preface my remarks by acknowledging the various complications and politics which can go into programming any film festival. I’m sure there are grandiose ideas and pipe dreams behind-the-scenes which go filtered through unaccommodating studios and filmmakers

#1 – Schedule More Films!
Thirty-five features is a pretty decent lineup. It’s also about the average any respectable journalist will be able to fit in during a week’s trip to any festival. CineVegas lasts nine days and 4-5 of those features are actually part of their annual moviestar tributes. Older, classic (well, not always classic) titles wedged in to represent 15% of the complete lineup. I hate it as much as anyone when I’m forced to make a choice between two titles I’ve been clamoring to see; a problem faced at least once at each trip to Sundance, Toronto or South by Southwest. CineVegas has never really presented that quandary, and while I never thought I’d ever hear myself say this, I wish it did.

As this is a town where sleep is as much a luxury as hiding your card-counting skills, you will hear very little complaints that the daily film programs don’t begin until Noon at the earliest (as opposed to Sundance & Toronto who will go as early as 8:30 am.) But even with such a late start there is plenty of wiggle room to wiggle in some extra features. Consider the breakdown of this year’s schedule:

Friday, June 9 – The opening night film Strangers With Candy at 7:30 pm and nothing else.

Saturday, June 10 (Starting at 12:30 pm) – Six features and two shorts programs.

Sunday, June 11 (Starting at 12:30 pm) – Eight features, a special local short film project and the “Outlaw Cinema Panel” featuring a collection of indie directors including Gregg Araki, James Fotopoulos and Nina Menkes.

Monday, June 12 (Starting at 1:00 pm) – Eight features, including the Laurence Fishburne tribute and a shorts program

Tuesday, June 13 (Starting at 1:00 pm) – Six features and two shorts program including one highlighting UNLV students.

Wednesday, June 14 (Starting at 3:00 pm!) – Four features, including the Sylvester Stallone tribute (with the original Rocky) and three shorts programs.

Thursday, June 15 (Starting at 1:30 pm) – Six features and three more shorts programs.

Friday, June 16 (Starting at 11:30 am) – Eight features (three of which are associated with the tributes to Taylor Hackford and his wife, Helen Mirren) and a shorts program.

Saturday, June 17 (Starting at 12:30 pm) – Six features, including the Christina Ricci tribute (The Opposite of Sex) and a replay of the jury award winner. Oh, and a shorts program.

That, of course, is the original schedule you would find in all the handy pocket guides supplied by the, once again, enormously helpful press staff. Four additional “media & industry” screenings were added during the week giving press members little excuse to miss out. But to the daily schedule, conservatively, the festival could fit in another 18 screenings. And they don’t just have to be repeats. All of the “Jackpot Premieres” already have two screenings apiece (and two of those got the additional media screenings). The eight “Sure Bets” only get singles and all but three of the remaining films get multiples. There’s little reason to think of why the festival could not get another dozen films to show off or even premiere. Festivals pride themselves on choices and variance. Other than seeing Rocky midweek, Wednesday and Thursday were hardly rewarding for those who have been attending since the start. More than likely it gives them an easy excuse to duck out early instead of laying low during a two-day bridge to discover what the backend has to offer. And not just at Spearmint Rhino.

#2 - Work Hand-in-Hand With Sundance
This has been the underlying theme of CineVegas and since they already have a connection that most fests would kill for, they might as well exploit it. In 2003 there were 25 features (4 from Sundance). 2004 had 31 features and 8 from the Dance. 2005 they were up to 38 films but now only 6 from Sundance. This year it was down to only 35 films (including the five tributes from the past) and again 6 Sundance titles, but two of them were from the 2005 fest.

The last three years of CineVegas have opened with a Sundance selection. ’04 & ’06 got off to weak starts with D.E.B.S. and Strangers with Candy but ’05 had Hustle & Flow, the cause celebre that year kicking off the fest in grand fashion over a month before its theatrical release. I was personally betting (and hoping) that CineVegas ’06 would go with this year’s record-breaking Sundance pickup, Little Miss Sunshine – but perhaps that was because it already struck a deal to play the Los Angeles fest a few weeks later. Again, politics and timing are surely factors. But in a year when Sundance offered some intriguing indies like Dreamland and Flannel Pajamas (the perfect indie answer to dreck like The Break-Up) not to mention future releases like The Science of Sleep and Half Nelson (releasing through ThinkFILM whom CineVegas has enjoyed a prosperous relationship in the past), how did a film like Somebodies (which was almost universally dismissed as crap) make it from Sundance to Vegas? Even Bobcat Goldthwait’s Sundance entry, Stay, while certainly a weaker entry, couldn’t find a spot despite his Windy City Heat playing the fest in ’04 and the fact that he was actually THERE as part of the Outlaw Cinema Panel. (Even Abel Ferrara, also on the panel, had his latest film Mary in the fest.)

CineVegas should be hitching itself to Trevor Groth’s grand star of a festival in more ways than one. Just like in 2004 when what I felt were Vegas’ two best offerings, The Talent Given Us and Mitchellville, found a spot on Sundance’s schedule the following January. CineVegas is the mid-year bridge. It should highlight a best-of Sundance package that year to give locals a taste of both quality and what it takes to play the biggest independent festival in the world and then should also act as a preview of things to come at Sundance. The titles don’t have to be decided on right away – but guarantee that the best showings at Vegas will have a slot or two during the week at Sundance like the winners of the NCAA Division Tournaments in Hoops. If it’s good enough for Sundance, it’s good enough for CineVegas. The unfortunate truth of several of the interviews we had with the filmmakers this year is that they were actually turned down by Sundance – but were remembered and given what some might consider the consolation prize of CineVegas. Were they turned down because Sundance was already full and promised to several other studios or friends to the fest? Or simply because they weren’t Sundance quality to begin with. The majority of the films at CineVegas in ’06 regrettably seemed to fit this latter category.

#3 – Live Up To Your Slogan As “The World’s Most Dangerous Film Festival!”
You want to brand yourself with that label – then its time to truly start getting dangerous. The audience of the CineVegas screenings already skews towards the elders; mostly locals looking to experience a little piece of the independent scene and play cinema auteur. Let’s test that sincerity. This is Vegas after all, a town founded by gangsters and now promotes infidelity and lasciviousness in place of its family-friendly mock-up of the early 90s. Goldthwait’s Stay is founded on the aftermath of a young woman blowing her dog. How ‘bout letting grandma and grandpa chew on the multitude of shlongs in the Destricted anthology with different takes on how we view pornography?

OK, so you don’t have to go overboard and alienate the paying customers but its not just about taking chances. Represent the fest’s location. A film directly about Vegas here and there is fine, but get down to the nitty gritty. This year’s Skin City promised to expose the local sex industry but instead played more like a Chamber of Commerce assurance that willing adults can get what they want in Vegas even if they don’t really want it. The fact that it was billed as a (barely hourlong) “work-in-progress” is an all-too ironic footnote to most of the ’06 selections. A more ideal choice would have been the Stuart Gordon/David Mamet collaboration, Edmond, about a man’s nocturnal journey through the seedier sides of New York. So, it’s not Vegas persay, but it has the feel. And with Gordon in town just a month earlier to serve on a shorts jury, it should have been a slam dunk. Co-star Denise Richards was even in town doing a Pussycat Dolls performance at Caesar’s. Two birds, but where were the stones?

#4 - Hire Matt Dentler as a Consultant
For those unfamiliar with the name, Dentler has been the producer of the site’s favorite film festival, South by Southwest down in Austin, for years now. Trucking into warm weather in March from the frigid confines of Chicago, Philadelphia and Vancouver is just part of the appeal. What once was the breeding ground for up-and-coming musicians, Matt and his trusted staff have taken an add-on movie showcase and branded it into one of the most successful and fun-filled festivals on the market. As our Eric Snider so perfectly put, attending for his first time this year, “even if the films are just so-so, you don’t notice because you’re having so much fun.” So why in a town like Vegas where a festival badge gets you access to some of the most happening parties and hip spots on the strip were the “so-so” aspects noticed more?

Dentler knows how to mix it up. Big studio premieres coupled with quirky indies and documentaries covering all ranges of subjects. Granted, South by Southwest plays around three times as many films as CineVegas and yet they make it effortless as if they weren’t laboring to fill a quota. Matt this year managed to kick things off with Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion (three months prior to release), which CineVegas also used on May 20 as a free screening on Lake Las Vegas to announce their titles (three weeks prior to release.) Matt also grabbed a pair from Universal (American Dreamz & Slither), another surprise Richard Linklater screening of A Scanner Darkly (Before Sunset was a four-month early highlight in ’04) and the highly anticipated, V for Vendetta.

Admittedly the Natalie Portman/Hugo Weaving extravaganza premiered only two days before its national release – but it’s a bigger deal than having Nacho Libre premiere 16 hours before its first showing at the Brendan Theatres. (If you had the means you could have caught a promo screening two days earlier at The Orleans.) I am in no way suggesting incompetence or a lack of drive on the part of the CineVegas programmers, but if they want to seriously move into the territory of both danger and entertainment they should look into consulting a Texan on how to do it.

#5 – Utilize More Theater Space – And Theaters!
For years, the Brendan Theaters at the “Real World Was Here” Palms Hotel have been the home of CineVegas. Johnny Brendan has been a generous supporter of the fest donating three screens of his inherited franchise to independent film while Tokyo Drift and The Lake House plays on just as many screens. Hey, the guy doesn’t have to donate shwantz so “Bravo” I say to his continued support. But if he really wants this fest to grow, providing further opportunity to give celebrities their own “I was here” star in front of the concession stand, then he needs to open a few more screens. Or its time to utilize a few more theaters.

Contrary to the whole “who would want to go see a movie in Vegas?” quandary, the town actually boasts a wide array of theater chains. There’s the Brendan 14 at the Palms, the Regal 10 at Green Valley Ranch, the Century 18 at The Orleans (plus the Century 16 Suncoast & South Coast) and the United Artists 8 where I saw Saving Private Ryan, The Haunting, Coyote Ugly and Austin Powers in Goldmember while on vacation. So THERE!

Granted, the Palms offers an aura of convenience for journalists inundated with cab fares and, even with this suggestion, I pray to God no one has to trek over to the Green Valley Ranch for anything but one of their kick-ass opening/closing parties. (Again, no knock on GVR – it’s a beautiful place and I hope whales go there and lose their shirts.) But compared to South by Southwest which uses six theaters (and seven screens) spread out over town, CineVegas has one theater and three screens. With the right scheduling, the fest should be able to trot out 45-50 movies as is. With another theater offering support, you could add another 2-3 screens, another 20 features and, conservatively, twice as many screenings. My own thought – try to take over a pair of screens from the General Cinema 8. About half the local people I come into contact with aren’t even aware there’s a film festival in town, so bring part of it to the strip. It’s not too far from the Palms and it will open up the exposure and give people yet another reason to check out the Maloof empire other than the rooftop tavern (GhostBar) and the sardine-can nightclub (Rain). Most importantly – more films, more filmmakers, more selection, and maybe a better batting average on celebrity appearances.

#6 – Get the Celebrities To Show Up!
This is, unfortunately, the kind of request which is beyond the control of all the festival handlers. Big stars can be a fickle bunch who need to be coddled and controlled by a posse of yes-folk who believe they know better than their client’s brains can allow. This is likely the reason many festivals rely upon the “celebrity double-dip” to program their lineup. That’s the statistical probability that you can get in light of giving them a good reason to show-up, you give them two. It holds true from Sundance to Toronto to South by Southwest that two films are better than one; even if one (or both) is of lesser quality.

This year’s most notable recipient of the double-dip was Rebecca Romijn, who co-starred in the closing night film, Lies & Alibis, but also found her personal dream project, Wet Dreams playing – a 69-minute document of her passion to program the Bellagio fountain show. Vegas-themed for sure, but likely also the only festival willing to show it off. Mere weeks before the festival kicked off, Romijn dropped out of appearing reportedly due to a family illness in Holland. Again, just bad timing and not CineVegas’ fault although some reports (perhaps callously misinformed) suggested Romijn’s absence was for a “family reunion.” Whatever the truth may be, we were still left with a so-so caper flick and a mercilessly short vanity project filling up two slots in the fest and even an entire party at the Bellagio in her honor was cancelled.

Tomei was a no-show for her big brain-twister, Danika. She was off filming a movie apparently, but would a showing of Factotum (a Sundance entry with Matt Dillon about Charles Bukowski – another character perfectly suited for Vegas) have sweetened the odds? Larry Clark may not be of the star-gawking variety, but with his chapter of Sundance’s Destricted, the soon-to-be-opening Wassup Rockers and his penchant for underage sex on film – Vegas should have rolled out the red carpet. Or at least got him involved in the Skin City work-in-progress. And what of Sylvester Stallone? How cool would it have been for him to bring an exclusive highlight reel of the forthcoming Rocky Balboa alongside his honoree theater star and his introduction of a screening of the original Rocky for eager festival goers? Instead, he couldn’t be bothered to attend the glorious Voodoo lounge (outside on top of the Rio Hotel) in his honor, complete with a boxing glove ice sculpture and a little roped off area all for him that remained empty all night. Then again, the hosts for that evening, Penn & Teller, proved to be a no-show as well despite being staples of the event’s past three years. I am not a stargazer myself and won’t even engage an actor or filmmaker if I haven’t (A) seen their latest work or (B) had anything nice to say about it. But if the festival is going to be selling passes to the general public ranging from $100 up to $500 (for complete access to all films and parties) they are also selling a way of life. And that life includes not just extravagant parties and free booze, but the opportunity to hobknob with or, at least, stand close to the glitterati. If they’re not there, it’s just a prepayment on a bar tab. Hopefully the movies make up for it. Oh wait, they didn’t this year.

#7 – Update the Tributes with Newer Movies (or Serious Classics)
Aside from Stallone, this year’s star tributes went to Laurence Fishburne, Christina Ricci, Taylor Hackford and (wife) Helen Mirren. Christina was there for the awards ceremony and hosting the closing night party. So were Hackford and Mirren. Fishburne proved to be the tops though, flying in on his dark night of his recent stage performance, to not just be honored but take part in a lengthy conversation with former NY Times critic (and current CineVegas board member) Elvis Mitchell that wasn’t all Matrix and current projects but filled with delightful stories ranging from Apocalypse Now to Rumble Fish. However, Fishburne was the only attendee to have a film, Five Fingers, which had not yet graced theaters. Ricci’s highlight was her memorable performance in The Opposite of Sex, Helen Mirren got The Passion of Ayn Rand (a cable movie) and Hackford had The Idolmaker(!) and Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (no doubt to promote the 4-disc special edition hitting stores June 27.)

Were these really the best choices to draw people to the festival? There should only be two options if one-sixth of your fest is going to take away the opportunity for burgeoning filmmakers to begin their trek to future “half-life” honors. Either really dig into the archives like the beautiful print of Rocky - a film that many would love to see again or see for the first time on a big screen with an appreciative audience – or reach into the future to premiere something new on their plate. Ricci has the sure-to-be-controversial Black Snake Moan on the horizon, about a nymphomaniac taken in by a bluesman. Sex, music and Samuel L. Jackson dealing with a more Vegas-appropriate kind of snake. (Hell, with their New Line union in past year’s debuting The Notebook and Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle – maybe they could have even got Jackson to show up with Snakes On A Plane!) There was some rumbling that Black Snake Moan wasn’t yet completed, but who said CineVegas never programmed a work-in-progress before? As the film was directed by Craig Brewer whose Hustle & Flow kicked off CineVegas 2005, I’m sure he could have kicked his editor in the ass to have it ready at least as the closing night feature.

Hackford had two of his music-themed features as his tribute instead of Ray, Against All Odds (gambling AND sex) or audience-favorite, An Officer and an Gentleman. And while she may not be its star, how great would it have been to see Excalibur as part of Mirren’s tribute? Hell, there’s a freakin’ HOTEL in town named after it that plays the film in their gift shop 24/7. So we were left with Fishburne’s Five Fingers, which proved to be a less than extraordinary experience that only retained about a quarter of those who showed up to watch his Mitchell conversation which contained not one mention of the project. Ironically, it would have been more an honor to show the audience-challenged, Akeelah and the Bee, from earlier this year. Or, I don’t know, maybe in honor of August’s “Complete Dossier” -show a little film co-starring both your honoree and your festival’s President called APOCALYPSE NOW!

#8 – Make Sure Attending Press Have Seen Little Films Like APOCALYPSE NOW!
At the Fishburne tribute I was seated next to a gaggle of a group, all with press badges who appeared to be doing a tag-team approach to getting up and going to the bathroom. After Fishburne left along with most of the audience before Five Fingers, I witnessed the following conversation:

GAGGLE WOMAN #1: “Apocalypse Now? Which one was that again?”
GAGGLE MAN #1: “That’s the one with all the war.”

My first thought was to throw an elbow Black Rain-style. (Yes, I’m up on all the fruits Paramount has to offer.) But after that fantasy moment of violence passed, I started wondering how the hell did these people get press badges? In the past, CineVegas has been gracious enough to grant visiting friends of mine guest passes for parties. None of them “in the business” in any capacity and yet I guarantee they would at least possess the compulsory knowledge necessary to not make a fool of themselves in the room. A small fest like CineVegas, naturally, can use all the press they can get. So maybe it’s just a personal peeve of mine that journalism (and not just for film) has labored to find reporters suitable enough to handle the duties that they are assigned. How the hell can you cover a Laurence Fishburne tribute and not know the part of his career when he was known only as “Larry”? If these are the people covering your festival, then I weep for the filmmakers praying for some worthwhile criticism and press for films that may be looking at their only shot for exposure and distribution.

#9 – Avoid Programming Anything Destined For “National Lampoon Presents” Status
A criticism of CineVegas I’ve heard more than once from colleagues is that it’s just another in a line of “direct-to-video” festivals. This distinction is both unfair and accurate depending, of course, on the films themselves. I have seen many terrific films here over the years, most without the cache of name stars and catchy storylines which immediately make them a challenge for distributors to invest in them past a run on video. Since 2003 only a handful of CineVegas premieres have gone on to a theatrical release (Dallas 362, Games People Play: New York, Lady Killers, Shade, This Girl’s Life, The Talent Given Us and Standing Still); one so ultra-limited it almost seemed like charity. Meanwhile, several other small gems like The Fittest & Klepto (premiering in ’03 and hitting DVD in December ’05 & April ’06, respectively), decent entries like High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story and weak stuff like The Pitcher and the Pin-Up, Lurking in Suburbia and Octane found their way into the market while Mitchellville, Mix and Cross Bronx (co-starring a 2004 unknown named Jerry Ferrara, aka Turtle on Entourage) remain in limbo.

On top of that, you may have guessed that the aforementioned Lady Killers is not the Coen Bros. remake with Tom Hanks (which was released the following spring), but went on to become known as Gold Diggers. National Lampoon’s Gold Diggers. If you haven’t seen it, please don’t, as it’s one of the worst comedies possibly ever made. Laughter is certainly a hit-and-miss proposition and CineVegas, along with the adult fare its tried to program, has countered it with more decidedly sophomoric fare such as Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, Vegas Baby (aka Bachelor Party Vegas), Goldthwait’s brilliantly funny (and unedited) Comedy Central premiere, Windy City Heat, and this year’s Beer League. Granted, two of those already had theatrical distribution going in – but a sure way to attract the industry to your festival is to up the ante of overall quality. Just two or three good pick-ups from your fest is enough for more filmmakers to consider submission.

It was unfortunate to hear that a filmmaker I suggested send their film in (one which I thought was hysterically funny and right up CineVegas’ niche aisle) got back a response from a programmer (who will remain anonymous here) who said they just don’t “respond to fake documentaries (other than the occasional Christopher Guest film)…I see too many and they all end up having the same style.” Funny considering that in the past four years, CineVegas has programmed Games People Play: New York, Last Man Running, Windy City Heat, Buy It Now and Interkosmos – all unique mockumentaries in some form or another. But, hey, I guess it was no Gold Diggers.

(NOTE: The film in question, after I reviewed it, was presented with an offer from National Lampoon productions and the filmmakers turned them down. Bravo to integrity!)

#10 – Please Consider Nos. 1-9 as Constructive, Not Destructive
I can already foresee this article being passed along from press coordinators to programmers to board members through e-mail with replies that read “Who the hell is THIS guy?” For all I know as an outsider looking in is that each and every one of my suggestions were put into play and volleyed back into their court to search for a suitable alternative. Part of me does hope this actually isn’t the case as it comes with the suggestion that others don’t find CineVegas worthy enough to test their product and bother their clients about. I find that hard to fathom considering they carry with it one of the most respected festival programmers out there.

Bottom line is I want to see CineVegas grow into something truly special. All the pieces are right there in front of them – they just have to move them into place. It’s never going to be synonymous with independent spirit the way Sundance is or the pre-Oscar showcase of Toronto. But this is Vegas. It comes with its own identity, probably the only festival where the city as a whole trumps everything within it and it’s not hard to attract people to everything it has to offer. It’s also the town where bigger is not better, it’s a requirement. You can’t put the Charlie Brown Christmas tree next to the one in Rockefeller Center and expect to compete. Ah, but the more gifts you start putting under the tree and people start taking notice.

CineVegas will celebrate its 10th Anniversary in 2008. It should be a special year considering how many festivals die out before they can peak or never get off the ground to begin with. I can’t wait to attend that year. But its two years away. And I’ve got 2007 and the 9th Annual event to look forward to first. It’s a little less than a year away and members of their staff are already looking towards Sundance in January. In the interim between now and Sundance and then between Sundance and next June, I’m hoping CineVegas will see five dice, pick the right two and begin counting those face cards even at risk of being thrown into the black book forever. There is no danger without taking chances and I hope when I return to cover year nine in ’07, it will be laying the groundwork for a magnificent future to come. Viva CineVegas!

link directly to this feature at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=1880
originally posted: 07/04/06 20:44:46
last updated: 07/24/06 17:59:45
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