Day 2 of the 8th Annual Las Vegas Film Festival exceeded all my expectations and has provided the cinematic and musical highlights of the festival so far in Chuck Norris vs. Communism, Bare, and a rocking after-party featuring local acts Jesse Pino and the Clever Clouds and Details.

I arrived in time for the kickoff mixer sponsored by herFLIX, an “online viewing platform of movies for women”. I was fortunate enough to speak with Adriana Shaw of herFLIX, an industry veteran who is conducting today’s Alternative Distribution Panel. She was very nice, and one of the main topics of conversation was yesterday’s feature film Bare, directed by Natalia Leite.

Bare was a movie that, in my opinion, perfectly encapsulated the vision of the Las Vegas Film Festival and the undercurrent that is present in many of the films being screened at the Festival. To outsiders, Las Vegas is a place where people come to get away from reality, and the descriptions of Las Vegas (or Reno) in many movies are reflective of this desire. Oftentimes a movie or TV show will have a “Vegas scene”, typically some sort of bachelor party, gambling excursion, or sporting championship event. Rain Man, Think Like a Man Too, The Hangover, What Happens In Vegas, Honeymoon in Vegas, Swingers, the list goes on and on. Even Percy Jackson & the Olympians had a scene involving kids abandoning their responsibilities in the fictional “Lotus Casino”. The point is that all of these movies tend to depict Las Vegas from the tourist’s perspective.

Bare, like many of the other films screened at the Festival, reflects the reality as seen by those who call Nevada home, one in which casinos and (for some) strip clubs aren’t some exotic escapist locale but rather the backdrop to our daily dramas. Dianna Agron was perfectly cast as the wholesome All-American girl living in a small town, trying to figure out the quickest way out before she’s too entrenched to ever leave and fulfill whatever dreams she may have left. Enter Paz De La Huerta, who delivers the role of her career as “Pepper”, a sultry vagabond who lures Argon’s character “Sarah” into a world she wouldn’t otherwise have entered.

Paz De La Huerta already has devoted fans due to her work on Boardwalk Empire, and for good reason. The whole movie balances on De La Huerta’s performance, as the audience must also be enchanted with her bohemian magnetism in order to believe that “Sarah” would make such drastic life choices due to “Pepper’s” influence.

I enjoyed Bare and thought it was cautionary without being preachy. It simply presented a story on screen that could certainly be a reality for others. Although I said to myself in the beginning “Hey don’t go down that road”, I knew that “Sarah” would and had compassion for her when that road inevitably took her to places she did not expect. Likewise the filmmakers did an excellent job, considering the subject material, of making a film that was at times sensual but without ever being exploitative. Overall I thought Bare was a very well made film and the acting was superb.

The College of Southern Nevada Filmmaker Showcase, much like Tuesday’s event with UNLV film students, demonstrated that the future of Las Vegas filmmaking is in good hands. I was extremely impressed with the quality of both the writing and the production of these films. Notable standouts for me were Cien, Boy Meets Girl, and Overwhelmingly OK. Cien, directed by John Toles-Bey, was a fun, gritty film about a mobster hitman who makes a deal with the devil, only to find out what happens when you try to outsmart the master himself. Toles-Bey himself makes an excellent cameo in the short film playing what I presumed to be the dapper Prince of Darkness himself. I especially enjoyed his use of local landmarks in his short story, and I left wondering why I had never imagined a mob hit in the shadows of the Downtown Container Park’s fire breathing praying mantis before (it makes so much sense).

Boy Meets Girl, directed by Rick Barcode, was a visual feast. I was very impressed by the story, the special effects, and the camera shots in this sci-fi love story. With all due respect to the outstanding student films screened so far, this may have been the most ambitious and creative work I have seen so far this week.

Overwhelmingly OK, by Zachary Honea, detailed the music and art of Las Vegas’s own Joey Hines. Full disclosure here, I have met Joey before, dished out $15 for his Kickstarter campaign, and attended his CD release party at the Hard Hat Lounge a few months ago. (In case you are interested, the CD also features outstanding tracks from local musicians Josh Greenway and Anna Duerden). His EP was produced by Mike Ziethlow, better known in Las Vegas as the man behind the wildly popular (but sadly now defunct) Vegas on the Mic open mic series. Disclosures and shameless plugs out of the way, the film was a huge hit with the audience. I laughed as well because, having the CD still in my car, I have been listening for the past few months to Joey’s quirky but heartfelt songs about such characters “Chuck the Duck” and love-sick fish. The film uses interviews with Hines and clips of his artwork to demonstrate that Hine’s music, while quirky and humorous, should by no means be considered “novelty”. Instead he is trying to process the emotions we all experience in his own unique and entertaining way. I was already a fan of Hine’s music so I enjoyed the film, and it was clear that his music was enjoyed by the audience as well.

College of Southern Nevada Filmmakers

I would have to say the highlight of the day, and of the festival so far, was the highly anticipated Chuck Norris vs. Communism. Not since Snakes on a Plane have I wanted to see a movie based on a title alone. Snakes on a Plane was a terrible movie, so I had my apprehension about this film. I intentionally did not read any reviews or descriptions of the film, wanting instead to simply be surprised at whatever was behind a title so amazing. SPOILER ALERT- if you are of the same mindset as me skip down past the picture below, otherwise here’s my opinion of the film.

Chuck Norris vs. Communism could just as easily have been titled “Sylvester Stallone vs. Communism” or, more accurately, “Hollywood vs. Communism”. In Communist controlled Romania, a bold entrepreneur named Teodor Zamfir smuggles contraband VHS tapes of American movies into the country and disseminates them throughout Romania, making a small fortune in the process. To do so he enlists the help of Irina Nistor, who translates the films to include Romanian overdubs.

The interviewees recall with great nostalgia how Irinia Nistor’s voice and her quirky translation style were omnipresent on every single movie they watched growing up. More importantly, the people who were living under an oppressive regime found faith and courage in movies that we as Americans simply found entertaining. The extent of the bootleg VHS empire was well attested to, with even the secret police and high government officials partaking in the illegal entertainment. An emotional highlight for me was hearing people describe how Irinia Nistor and Teodor Zamfir’s actions allowed them to have access to religious programming at a time when the regime was destroying churches and forbidding people to even say the word “God”. An interviewee recounts that at a screening of “Jesus of Nazareth”, people who had been long denied access to any religious church services were openly weeping at the crucifixion scene. Interviews with several Romanian priests help reinforce how important the illegal VHS tapes were not just to their social lives but to the Romanian spiritual lives as well. In conversations with several people after the film we couldn’t help but point out the unfortunate parallels between extreme cencorship and religious persecution described in Communist Romania and the current conditions in North Korea, China, and parts of the Middle East.

I had expected Chuck Norris vs. Communism to be a quirky pop culture film, but instead I was pleasantly surprised to watch an emotional documentary on unique historical story. I left feeling like I had viewed not just the best film of the festival so far but the best documentary I had seen in years, period. I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone.

 Director Ilinca Calugareanu introduces Chuck Norris vs. Communism.
Director Ilinca Calugareanu introduces Chuck Norris vs. Communism.

The after party was held in The Griffin, a personal favorite haunt of mine. (I like to call it “The Hobbit Bar” due to its similarity to Tolkien’s Prancing Pony). The backroom was packed tight and live music was outstanding. Jesse Pino is an amazing songwriter and had a killer rhythm section accompanying him. Together they provided an electrifying set of rock tunes in an intimate space.

Jesse Pino rocks the Griffin.
Jesse Pino rocks The Griffin.

They were followed up by Details, described by the Las Vegas Weekly as a “Synth Pop Duo”. Make that a trio, because the addition of outstanding drummer Jake Magness added a little musical “muscle” to their smooth, melodic electronica. I always appreciate bands that are willing to experiment and in Details case the risk pays off with a unique sound that is equally raw and refined.

John Lloyd and Tamara Nocom of Details.
John Lloyd and Tamara Nocom of Details.

Day 2 was long but exciting. I look forward to seeing everybody again very soon for Day 3!