Updated on 09/17/2011 11:46AM

Film festival puts some winners on-screen

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Arriving at the Palms to cover the CineVegas International Film Festival last week, I hoped that the ladies at the press registration office couldn't tell how wired I was on Coke (make that Coca-Cola) and that they wouldn't inspect my briefcase filled with drugs (make that Tylenol, Vivarin, Red Bull, and an extra stash of Coke - everything you need for a fun night in Las Vegas).

Paranoia really set in at the opening-night party. It was a feeding frenzy. I'm used to swimming with the fish in a sports book, not with the sharks from Hollywood - the producers, directors, screenwriters, and agents. The sharks were circling the lesser fish, the wanna-be filmmakers trying to show they belonged in the big leagues. I had ventured into the belly of the beast. I just wanted to do my job and get out alive . . .

Pardon the overly dramatic, Hunter S. Thompson-style intro. But in these surroundings I'm about as far out of my element as Thompson's drug-popping character in the 1971 book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," who was in town to cover the Mint 400 auto race and wound up in the middle of a district attorneys convention. Here's hoping Thompson's arrival this weekend will actually bring a semblance of reality to the proceedings.

Thompson is also known for writing "Hell's Angels," "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72," and "The Great Shark Hunt," although younger readers who frequent Page 2 at ESPN.com might know him as the old guy who pens "Hey, Rube," a column in which he waxes philosophical on a number of matters, not the least of which is his penchant for sports betting.

Thompson was expected to arrive for the Friday night screening of the film version of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." On Saturday, he will take part in the CineVegas awards luncheon (11:30 a.m. at The Venetian), which will honor fellow hippie-generation icon Dennis Hopper; a panel discussion with Hopper and Grace Slick (2 p.m., also at The Venetian); and then the world-premiere screening of the Thompson documentary "Breakfast with Hunter" (7 p.m. at the Palms).

So, while film criticism isn't my bag, man, here are some reviews of movies screened earlier this week on subjects that I am definitely comfortable with - gambling, Las Vegas, and sports.

"Stuey"

*** (out of four)

Stu "The Kid" Ungar is the only three-time World Series of Poker champion. He was the youngest champ in WSOP history when he played for the first time in 1980, then he repeated in 1981, and won again in 1997. He died of a drug overdose in 1998.

This stylish film shows that Ungar was a virtual child prodigy, learning his craft by playing cards with his dad's cronies in upscale New York. But he runs into debt playing the ponies and has to go to Las Vegas to win a $100,000 gin rummy tournament to settle his debts. He does, and then realizes Las Vegas is where he should be.

The card-playing sequences are genuine, and use the actual hands Ungar played in the WSOP. But the movie falls flat by not really explaining the 16-year gap before his comeback. The device of Ungar telling his life story to a mysterious stranger (his conscience, death, whatever) seems misguided and unnecessary.

Still, the profile of a world champion and his tortured soul is a worthy effort. The movie includes "The Sopranos" castmates Michael Imperioli and Stephen R. Schirripa, so we should see it in theaters sooner rather than later.

Product placement note: Daily Racing Form makes an appearance, though the front page is clearly the design used for Las Vegas editions circa 2002 instead of the look from the early 1980's.

"Bunny Yeager's Nude Las Vegas"

*

Real-life Playboy photographer Bunny Yeager stars in this 1964 soft-core flick in which she is forced to work on her vacation. Bunny serves up more cheesecake than Lindy's. As for the acting, can you say "camp"? But it's so bad, it's good. And it gives a glimpse of the Strip in more ways than one. Oh, my, how things have changed in just under 40 years - in more ways than one.

Product placement note: A Vegas local who befriends Bunny and her husband is seen handicapping the Santa Anita races with DRF, and carries the Form in several scenes.

"Something to Cheer About"

****

The highlight of the festival, at least through Wednesday.

The documentary is about the first all-black high school team to win a state championship. And not just any state - Indiana.

But this isn't "Hoosiers." It's better. While "Hoosiers" is the Hollywood version of the small-town Milan team that won the 1954 Indiana state title, "Something to Cheer About" is about Crispus Attucks High School, which won the title the next year. The school was created at a time of segregation so that all black students in the city would go to one school and not mix with the white students.

The team not only had to face its opponents, but also racial prejudice from referees and fans. The players often had to pack lunches on the road, because restaurants in towns they would visit would not serve them. After they won the title, the victory parade was in the ghetto, instead of downtown where other high school champions of the day had been honored.

The film includes interviews with the head coach and most of the main players, including the legendary Oscar Robertson. There is even actual game footage.

For basketball fans and historians, the most poignant moment is when Crispus Attucks meets Milan in the 1954 quarterfinals. Two top players for Attucks were injured, and they lost. If they had been healthy, "Hoosiers" might not be part of our collective consciousness. Crispus Attucks then won the title the next two seasons, losing only one game.

If this documentary finds its way to a cable network or a film festival near you, it's a must-see. The true power of the film is in the recollections of the actual players and coach, speaking from their hearts about their hard upbringings, the racism they faced, and the pride they found from their accomplishments.

Coming Sunday: More mini-reviews of CineVegas films.