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Las Vegas Film Festival returns this weekend with buzzy lineup

It would be hard for a film festival to attract more attention than by screening documentaries invoking Satan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Especially among that segment of the population that isn’t entirely convinced they aren’t one and the same.

“Hail Satan?” and “Knock Down the House,” still relatively fresh from their Sundance premieres, anchor the buzzy lineup for the 12th annual Las Vegas Film Festival. (The fest is scheduled to run Sunday through May 5 at Brenden Theatres at the Palms and downtown’s Inspire, 107 Las Vegas Blvd. South. For tickets and more information, see lvff.com.)

“There’s so much of a preconceived notion about what those films stand for,” says Mike Plante, the festival’s captain of strategy, “when they’re just, like, ‘Here’s a story that we filmed.’ And it’s really fascinating, because you’ll never believe how layered all of it is.”

‘Hail Satan?’

“Hail Satan?” — emphasis on the question mark — focuses on the political circus known as the Satanic Temple as its members target the hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas and petition the Oklahoma legislature, after it authorized a monument to the Ten Commandments, to do the same for its 7-foot statue of the goat-headed deity Baphomet.

“When you’re watching it, actually it has nothing to do really with Satan,” Plante cautions of the film that screens at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Palms. “It’s more about free speech. And it’s hilarious.”

‘Knock Down the House’

“Knock Down the House” (5 p.m. May 4, Palms), meanwhile, follows the grassroots political campaigns of four women — including Ocasio-Cortez and Las Vegan Amy Vilela — during the 2018 midterm elections.

Plante sees the film, which took home the Festival Favorite Award and the Audience Award: U.S. Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where he’s a senior programmer, as a primer for anyone who’s ever considered running for office without deep-pocketed connections.

“At the end of the day, this is really for anybody who’s just outside of that part of our political world. … How do people go about it when you’re not a millionaire or an old guy — usually it’s men — an old guy who’s been in politics for 50 years? How does it work? Where do you go? And how do you set yourself apart?”

Amazing Johnathan doc

Both of those are riding waves of positive reviews, and the latter has a local connection. But there may be no more perfect movie to serve as the festival’s opening night film than their fellow Sundance premiere “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary” (7:30 p.m. Sunday, Palms).

Three years after the Las Vegan born John Edward Szeles announced he had a terminal heart condition and was given a year to live, documentarian Ben Berman began chronicling the famously bizarre comic/magician. It did not go as planned. As the official Sundance synopsis puts it, “as their mutual journey kicks off, Johnathan drops a bombshell that sends the film spiraling into uncertainty.”

“To see this with a crowd is incredible. … Different parts of the crowd are going, ‘Oh, (expletive)! What?’ ” Plante says. “There’s this reaction because no one can believe it as it unfolds.”

Berman and Johnathan, health permitting, are scheduled to speak at the screening of their film, as are “Hail Satan?” director Penny Lane and “Knock Down the House’s” Vilela at theirs.

Short films

The festival’s three short film blocks offer a range of stories, but the final group, scheduled for 4 p.m. May 3 at Inspire, should be tough to beat. “Westside,” from directors Johann Rucker and Vince Briscoe, looks at segregation in Las Vegas. Two others in that block offer the kind of onscreen star power surpassed at the festival only by Ocasio-Cortez. “Adams” stars Patton Oswalt and Fred Armisen as neighbors locked in an escalating conflict, while “The Toll Road” stars Lizzy Caplan, “Silicon Valley’s” Martin Starr and “Mike & Molly’s” Billy Gardell.

Fortuitous timing

As for the uptick in interest in this year’s features — “Hail Satan?” is getting a theatrical release, while “Knock Down the House” and “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary” were snapped up by Netflix and Hulu, respectively — Plante credits scheduling and a little bit of luck.

“Since we’re earlier in the year, I think a lot of that buzz from other fests is carrying over,” he says, noting that last year’s edition ran June 6 to 10.

“We’re a little bit closer to when these films are popping out, which helps us.”

Not to mention what it does for moviegoers.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence @reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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