EMAV Review: The 2018 Laughlin Film Festival

After seven years, the Laughlin International Film Festival has established itself as a well-run, filmmaker-friendly event, creating an indie film oasis in an unlikely location. This year’s festival featured four days of screenings across three auditoriums at the Stadium 9 Cinemas inside the Laughlin Outlet Center, along with mixers, presentations and an awards ceremony honoring the best of the fest. For my first visit to the festival, I made it for two of the four days, but I did my best to see as much as possible, including features, shorts and documentaries.

I arrived just in time for the documentary feature Cracking Aces: A Woman’s Place at the Table, which features plenty of Las Vegas footage in its chronicle of women breaking into the male-dominated world of professional poker. Director H. James Gilmore and producer Tracy Halcomb (both academics) talk to a range of female poker luminaries, most of whom have fascinating stories, especially those who started playing in the ’70s and ’80s when casinos, card rooms and tournaments were even less welcoming than they are now. Halcomb was on hand to talk about the serendipitous meeting between her and Gilmore and two of the film’s subjects at a Benihana in Las Vegas, which provided the impetus for the movie.

Even at just 65 minutes, Cracking Aces gets a little thin, with its repetitive series of talking-head interviews and minimal gameplay footage (Halcomb talked about the difficulties of shooting at the ESPN-controlled World Series of Poker). Still, the subjects are all charismatic and lively, and their accomplishments are clear. Cracking Aces probably doesn’t warrant a full theatrical release, but it would be a great fit for PBS (especially in Las Vegas).

The four narrative features I saw were a bit more uneven, although I was impressed with some of their ambitions, especially on such limited resources. Oliver Cane’s Eyes and Prize follows four ordinary people who believe they’ve been selected for a reality show, but soon discover that the apartment full of cameras where they’re sequestered is more of a prison than a TV studio. Cane so effectively captures the inanity of reality-TV conversations that a lot of the early part of the movie is a chore to watch, but he eventually builds some tension and desperation as the situation gets worse for the characters.

He also engages in an impressive if not necessarily effective formalist experiment, opening with a 16-minute long take and making each successive shot a little shorter, until a barrage of ultra-quick cuts at the end. It’s a logistical challenge (as Cane talked about in the post-film Q&A) that doesn’t always benefit the narrative, but just pulling it off at all is an accomplishment.

Michael Boccalini and Che Grant’s mockumentary Love Possibly also engages in some interesting formal experimentation, although it’s a mostly straightforward comedy about a lonely, awkward Londoner who decides to connect with an Eastern European mail order bride in order to find love. Boccalini and Grant have more compassion for their protagonist than the makers of a broader comedy would, and they get intermittently amusing results out of his obsession with romantic comedies. At times, the movie seems torn between earnest romance and snarky mockery, but it’s generally good-natured and pleasant.

Cane, Boccalini and Grant, along with Love Possibly star Steve Hodgetts, all traveled to the festival from the U.K., demonstrating LIFF’s wide-reaching appeal and the way the organizers welcome and accommodate filmmakers. Closer to home, there was a program showcasing work from Bullhead City-based filmmaker Brian Lee Brown (Bullhead City, Arizona, is just across the Colorado River from Laughlin), and Vegas-based composer David Rosen had his music video Artificial in multiple shorts programs.

Artificial, directed by Ben Yonker, was a highlight of the shorts that I saw, with a clever and creepy depiction of a woman’s relationship with her homemade boyfriend doll. I also liked Scott Ballard’s North & Nowhere, a sweet and understated story about a woman breaking her terminally ill dad out of a nursing home for one last joy ride, which was the bright spot in an otherwise dismal program of shorts focused on social issues.

Even if I didn’t love everything I saw, I still had a very rewarding time at LIFF, which was just as welcoming to me as a journalist and critic as it is to the various filmmakers (I had a lively discussion with the Love Possibly crew about the goals of film criticism). Some of the screenings were sparsely attended, but the audience was always enthusiastic and engaged. On Friday night, there was a Keith Urban concert just across the parking lot from the movie theater at the Laughlin Event Center, but nothing distracted the festival organizers, volunteers and attendees from their celebration of independent filmmaking. That’s refreshing to find in a town of any size.

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