In its second year Downtown, the Las Vegas Film Festival further cemented its position as the city’s premier movie showcase, even partnering with the organizers of onetime local institution CineVegas. That now-defunct fest presented four screenings at the LVFF, including a welcome return from mysterious local filmmaker Tom Barndt with his new short The Paranormal Idiot, and the CineVegas brand added some extra legitimacy to the LVFF.
Head programmer West McDowell has done a lot to erase memories of the LVFF’s somewhat checkered past, and this year he did an especially effective job putting together the numerous shorts programs. There were some worthwhile features as well, but the shorts were easily the festival highlights, including some impressive works from local (or formerly local) filmmakers. The best came from UNLV alum Clinton Cornwell, who delivered a poignant mix of comedy and drama in Kiss and Tell, with nothing more than two characters sitting together on a couch.
On the feature side, the festival presented a program heavy with documentaries, including two inspirational films by local directors, both about young people with terrible illnesses. CineVegas’ Robin Greenspun directed Semicolon; The Adventures of Ostomy Girl, about Dana Marshall-Bernstein (daughter of local lawyer and TV personality Ed Bernstein), a 25-year-old suffering from severe Crohn’s disease; and local DJ Landon Dyksterhouse (aka the Mash-Up King) directed Beats4Tanner, about a teen with terminal brain cancer whose dreams of DJing at the Hard Rock brought him to Vegas. Both films are well-intentioned if sort of bland, but they’re professionally crafted and showcase subjects that are easy to root for.
My favorite feature documentary in the festival was the more stylish Chuck Norris vs. Communism, an entertaining and audience-friendly look at the underground VHS-trading network in Romania in the 1980s. It’s both a loving tribute to the power of movies (even bad ones) and a basic primer on communist repression.
The festival’s slate of narrative features was its most underwhelming, although I was transfixed by the baffling and often beautiful Canadian-Norwegian drama Violent, a meditation on the time leading up to a young woman’s death in a sudden disaster and her interactions with the people who mean the most to her. The other narrative features I saw often lacked the skill and vision to completely pull off their artistic ambitions, but at least they were reaching for something. The festival, too, is reaching for something, and each year it gets closer to realizing its lofty goals.