Film festival begins its run with screening of ‘Ocean’s Thirteen’

From a British invasion of honorees to the new wave of Mexican cinema, this year’s CineVegas film festival ranges all over the map.

All of which signals that CineVegas is finally on the map.

"Over this past year, the most rewarding thing is that I no longer have to explain what CineVegas is anymore," says Trevor Groth, a senior Sundance Film Festival programmer who has been CineVegas’ programming director for six years. "We have paid our dues."

The ninth annual CineVegas begins a 10-day run at the Palms with a Wednesday night screening of "Ocean’s

Thirteen" — complete with a red carpet spotlighting stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Ellen Barkin and Andy Garcia during a "Lights, Camera, Take Action" benefit for Not On Our Watch, which supports humanitarian efforts in Darfur.

Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins, meanwhile, is scheduled to accept the festival’s highest honor, the Marquee Award, June 15.

It’s an overdue tribute for Hopkins, who originally was invited to become a CineVegas honoree a few years ago by Dennis Hopper, the actor and filmmaker who chairs CineVegas’ creative advisory board.

"I couldn’t make it then" due to other commitments, Hopkins says. But this year, when Hopper asked again, "I said, ‘Would I!’ " (Hopkins is on a film festival victory tour this month; last week he accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Seattle International Film Festival.)

"I enjoy it in just a general way," Hopkins says of the festival experience.

Besides, a film festival in Las Vegas is a perfect fit for Hopkins, who, despite his august thespian credentials, says "I’m a wild man myself."

Another Oscar-winning Brit, Ben Kingsley, will receive CineVegas’ Vanguard Actor Award on the festival’s closing day. Kingsley also stars in the closing-night attraction, the black comedy "You Kill Me."

Kingsley, who plays an alcoholic hit man in the movie, "lends such credibility in anything he does," says "You Kill Me" director John Dahl. "Once he commits to a film, he commits to it. He loves the art of performing."

Other festival honorees include British director Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral"), who will receive the Vanguard Director Award, and Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron, recipient of the festival’s Half-Life Award. (OK, Theron’s from South Africa, not Britain — but South Africa is a former British colony.)

Initially, this year’s CineVegas was scheduled to begin Thursday, not Wednesday.

But the opportunity to showcase "Ocean’s Thirteen" — and to honor producer Jerry Weintraub with a Vanguard Award — so soon after its world premiere at last month’s Cannes Film Festival proved an ideal fit for CineVegas, Groth says, leading to the one-day-earlier start.

Considering "Ocean’s Thirteen’s" Las Vegas setting, "it didn’t take a genius to figure out what a perfect (decision) that was," he adds.

Thursday night’s main attraction, "The Grand," also boasts a very Vegas connection: It filmed here last year, primarily at downtown’s Golden Nugget. (That explains why Thursday’s screening takes place at the Nugget rather than at CineVegas’ headquarters, the Palms.)

The improvised mock documentary focuses on a high-stakes poker tournament — and "we really played a tournament," explains writer-director Zak Penn. (Woody Harrelson, Ray Romano, Dennis Farina, Michael McKean, Cheryl Hines, Richard Kind and Hank Azaria are among those in the cast.)

"A lot of it happened on the fly. We literally let the chips fall where they may," Penn says. "And they did not fall where we expected."

The movie debuted at New York’s recent Tribeca Film Festival, but Penn expects that "more of the Las Vegas jokes will be hitting home" during "The Grand’s" two CineVegas screenings.

Another attraction, the alternate-reality comedy "In the Land of Merry Misfits," also premiered at this year’s Tribeca festival.

But producer and actress Maria Menounos, who directed a short that played CineVegas last year (and hosted last year’s closing festivities), is looking forward to her return.

In part, that’s because she relishes post-screening discussions with audience members.

"It’s my favorite part of the entire screening," Menounos says. "I love to see what people think — I’m curious to know what they’re curious about."

Audience exchanges also are a highlight for New Zealand comedian-turned-filmmaker Taika Waititi, whose comedy "Eagle vs. Shark" has drawn comparisons with a previous CineVegas success, "Napoleon Dynamite."

Although "there’s always going to be people who don’t understand certain things," Waititi says, "it’s good to have a conversation with the audience — just to hear someone’s thoughts about it."

Waititi’s movie already has been picked up for a theatrical release, but several festival selections — including "In the Land of Merry Misfits" — still are looking for distribution.

And CineVegas has built a reputation as a home for American independents, Groth says. (Previous CineVegas festivals have provided a launching pad for "Sunshine State," "Bubba Ho-Tep," "24 Hour Party People," "Poolhall Junkies" and other indie favorites.)

"The industry knows to look for independents at CineVegas," he says. "Outside of the major festivals" such as Cannes, Toronto and Sundance, "we can do as much for a film as anyone."

This year, however, CineVegas makes a major move to become an international showcase with "La Proxima Ola" (which translates as "The Next Wave"), a section devoted to new movies from Mexico.

"We just thought it was the right time to expand our international reach," he says. And audiences "all over the globe are looking to Mexico as a new sort of force in film," Groth points out.

Besides, with the international success of Mexico’s "Three Amigos" — Guillermo del Toro ("Pan’s Labyrinth"), Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Babel") and Alfonso Cuaron ("Children of Men") — "there’s a lot more support within the Mexican film industry" for new voices, he suggests.

Two of the selections in "La Proxima Ola" make their U.S. debuts at CineVegas, but the festival’s lineup of world premieres is "as good as I’ve seen," according to Groth, who cites "top-notch films by incredibly gifted filmmakers."

One of his favorites, "All God’s Children Can Dance," is the first American adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story.

Director Robert Logevall "does an incredible job of capturing the essence" of Murakami’s writing, Groth says. "It’s a tone poem within this visual medium."

Groth describes another of his world premiere favorites, "The Living Wake," as a dark comedy in the Monty Python vein — but "unlike anything else," he adds. "I don’t think it will play broadly, but those who get it will become obsessed with it."

Overall, CineVegas will showcase about 40 features (and dozens of short films, in separate programs and prior to various feature screenings).

By design, that number is about the same as at previous CineVegas festivals.

"We want to make sure we don’t overwhelm the resources that we have," Groth explains. That way, "every film will have its moment in the spotlight."

And every film in this year’s CineVegas deserves it, he adds.

"This year, I had a much easier time securing the films I wanted," Groth says. "Our track record is starting to speak for itself."

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