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Your Guide to the 2014 Dallas International Film Festival

The Dallas Film Festival kicks-off Thursday. Our movie critics break down the films you should see -- and skip.
By Peter Simek |

I feel like I write the same thing every year ahead of the Dallas International Film Festival. Looking at the lineup, there seem to be fewer stand-out films than there were in years past, and even fewer stars to go with them. And every year we roll out a list of previews for the festival, with capsule reviews of the movies that offered pre-festival screeners to the press, and those reviews make overall program feel weak. Every year ahead of the festival, I worry for it. We all remember the days when the festival was affiliated with the American Film Institute and the star-power that partnership brought it. But that was back in the bullish aughts, before the recession, before AFI pulled out of the partnership. Now we are used to a fest that plays second fiddle — maybe even third — on the national film festival circuit.

Looking over this year’s crop of films that we watched on preview screeners, nothing in particular stands out. There are your curious dramas and captivating docs, but nothing enough to assuage fears that the trajectory of the Dallas IFF, both in terms of programming quality and celebrity fire power, is not headed in the right direction. This year’s star lineup feels particularly thin (it’s not a good sign when your biggest award goes to John Wayne, who, err, won’t be in attendance). Sometimes the Dallas IFF can feel like a festival that tries to carry itself like a star-studded, high-end event just to keep the veneer shinny for the festival sponsors.

And yet, every year, something else also happens. The weather is fantastic. The films screened during the festival prove much stronger than the ones we preview. There’s a incredible atmosphere created by the venues, the attendees, the enthusiastic filmmakers who do make it to town, and the people who run, volunteer, and make the film festival happen each year. The Dallas IFF continually surprises. It is a relaxed, accessible, and entirely enjoyable week of movies, with an extensive lineup that always hides gems. It’s one of the best parties of the year, during what it is the best time of the year to be in Dallas. And so if you don’t find anything that interests you below, get out there and surprise yourself by stumbling into something you’ve never heard of. — Peter Simek

Here are the previews:

Child’s Pose

4:15 p.m. April 4, Angelika 8 | 12 p.m.  April 12, Angelika 4

Grade: A-

The latest riveting low-budget social drama from Romania follows the exhaustive attempts of an overbearing mother (Luminita Gheorghiu) to keep her adult son out of prison following a deadly car crash. The well-acted yet unsettling character study works as both an exploration of dysfunctional mother-son relations and as an indictment of upper-class entitlement in Eastern Europe. — Todd Jorgenson



11:59 p.m. April 4, Angelika 8 | 10 p.m. April 11, Texas Theatre

Grade: C-

This bizarre Japanese sex comedy follows a single father still grieving his wife’s death who joins a mysterious S&M club that allows dominatrices to pop up randomly in his everyday life. Naturally, this arrangement wears thin for its subject after a while, just like the movie on its audience. The sketchy result tries to create more shocks than suspense. — Todd Jorgenson


 Shorts Program 2

12:30 p.m. April 5, Angelika 7 | 5:30 p.m. April 6, Angelika 4

Based upon an oral history, Tobacco Burn (B) reproduces an episode of defiance among slaves in the antebellum period. The stirring Ni-Ni (A) zeroes in on one of the aimless youth of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and his noble attempt at redemption. Aftermath (A) is a visually striking coming-of-age vignette, set against the bleak backdrop of a post-apocalyptic ice age, in which men must kill or be killed. Tryouts captures adolescent angst through the potent story of a hijab-wearing Muslim girl who wants to join her high-school cheerleading squad.  — Farraz Khan


The Road to Austin

4:30 p.m. April 5, Angelika 4 | 4:30 p.m. April 7, Angelika 6

Grade: B+

This promotional video for something called the Artist Wellness Program gets markedly better about 20 minutes in, once it becomes a concert film, though it’s frustratingly vague about when and where exactly this tribute show to musician Stephen Bruton took place. The producers would have been wise to skip the cheesy introductory segment during which John Paul DeJoria and Kris Kristofferson pretend to have a casual conversation at a roadside honky-tonk. How much you enjoy the rest of Road to Austin will depend on how much you enjoy the music of the likes of Kristofferson and Bonnie Raitt, though the highlight of the show for me was the astonishing vocal talents of opera singer Cara Johnston. As much praise as the participants heap on Saint Willie Nelson, it’s a shame he didn’t take part in the production. — Jason Heid


The Militant

7:30 p.m. April 6, Angelika 8 | 1:30 p.m. April 7, Angelika 8

Grade: C +

A student activist in Montevideo returns to his Uruguayan hometown after the death of his father. In interacting with student protestors there and wrapping up his father’s affairs (which involve settling a pile of debts), Ariel Cruz (played by an actor who speaks in a mumbling monotone) learns something about himself. I have no clue what that is, but at the end of the movie he seems to have made some sort of peace with his place in the world, I guess. — Jason Heid


No No: A Dockumentary

8 p.m. April 6, Angelika 4 | 4 p.m. April 7, Angelika 4

Grade: B+

You don’t have to be a baseball fan to appreciate this look at the life of Dock Ellis, the flamboyant former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who threw a no-hitter in 1970 while he claims to have been high on LSD. The film offers a compelling chronicle of Ellis through interviews and archival footage, detailing his triumphs and struggles. — Todd Jorgenson



10:15 p.m. April 4, Angelika 6 | 8:30 p.m. April 5, Angelika 7

Grade: B-

Eric Hueber’s follow-up to his madcap, surrealistic, psychedelic documentary, Rainbows End, is a sweaty and hard-worn, though heartfelt family drama called Flutter. Musician David (Jesse Plemons) has left JoLynn (Lindsay Pulsipher) with their son, Johnathan (Johnathan Huth Jr.) who suffers from severe glaucoma. She grows marijuana for treatment and struggles to pay her bills. A nosy mother-in-law, who lives next door, hounds her and calls child protective services. Johnathan lives in a dream world with his pet pig, battling imaginary sea monsters that parallel the adult stand-offs. The film’s heart is in the right place, and is supportive by a handful of sensitive performances as well as a flare for surealistic assides that mesh childhood immagination with the stresses of adult life. But an over-wrought script and uneven pacing create characters which never quite feels present, and a wistful sense of melancholy that never quite gels. — Peter Simek


Queens & Cowboys

2:30 p.m. April 5, Angelika 6 | 12 p.m. April 6, Angelika 4

Grade: B

Matt Livadary’s documentary follows the gay rodeo circuit for a year, using a Spellbound format. The film peeks into the lives of some of its prominent competitors, framing them against he story of the rodeo and its importance to gay culture as well as the it challenges American presumptions about masculinity, strength, and western bravado. Two characters who stand out are Wade Earp, a Dallas-based competitor who lost his partner to aids and struggles to beat the best cowboy on the circuit, and Chris Sherman, a young man from Oklahoma who couldn’t find a roping partner on the “straight” circuit after his college teammates found out he was gay. There’s not enough story here for Queers and Cowboys to be a truly great documentary, but the film still delivers a engaging, candid, and occationally moving look at the lives of a handful of characters that you root for, not only in rodeo, but in life. — Peter Simek


The Man Behind the Mask

8:15 p.m. April 6, Angelika 6 | 4:15 p.m. April 7, Angelika 7

Grade: C

Aficionados of Mexican wrestling — lucha libre — may be thrilled by this hagiographic documentary. Those of us unfamiliar with the exploits of masked men like El Santo (the most famous of all luchadores) and El Hijo del Santo find ourselves checking the clock frequently during the nearly two hours of this straightforward, tediously detailed story of how El Hijo inherited his mask from his famed father, made a legacy of his own, and is even passing on his brutal craft to another generation.— Jason Heid


Long Distance

10:15 p.m. April 6, Angelika 8 | 12:15 p.m. April 12, Angelika 7

Grade: B

Familiar themes are given a fresh spin in this contemporary romance about two Spanish lovers separated for a year when Alex (Natalia Tena) leaves for a yearlong residency in Los Angeles while Sergi (David Verdaguer) stays behind. They remain connected through social media, but their relationship is tested in a modest effort that’s both ambitious and intimate. — Todd Jorgenson


I Believe in Unicorns

7:15 p.m. April 7, Angelika 7 | 4:30 p.m. April 8, Angelika 4

Grade C-

A self-consciously quirky teenage girl hooks up with an older boy of punk rock pretensions. They run away together on the world’s most boring and absurdly emotional road trip, during which they make banal statements to one another in whispers of faux profundity. The frequent use of stop-motion animation by director Leah Meyerhoff does little to liven up the proceedings. I kept hoping they’d rob a bank or go on a murderous rampage or anything, really. This is the movie version of reading a high-school student’s poetry journals.— Jason Heid


Obvious Child

9:30 p.m. April 7, Angelika 7 | 1:30 p.m. April 9, Angelika 8

Grade: C

This comic portrait of a woman’s early mid-life crisis follows a sarcastic stand-up comedian (Jenny Slate) whose Valentine’s Day trifecta includes getting dumped, fired and pregnant. Her self-deprecation gives way to vulnerability as she tries to move on. While it features some amusing gags and supporting characters, Donna is more off-putting and obnoxious than she is charming and sassy. — Todd Jorgenson


Documentary Shorts

4:15 p.m. April 8, Angelika 7 | 9:15 p.m. April 9, Angelika 7

The three documentaries I saw in the doc shorts program all suffered, rather than benefited, from their curtailed form. 3 Acres in Detroit offers an intriguing look at an effort to farm areas of the bottomed-out inner city, but it plays more like a Kickstarter trailer for a feature length film than a stand-alone movie. In its examination of the cost of higher education, EduCAUTION adopts the familiar pairing of talking heads, engaging graffics, and dramatic music that movies like Inside Job used to make facts and figures engrossing and persuasive. But the movie feels too much like a bullet point of familiar grievances. The Home Team was the worst of the bunch. A story about the passion for Murray State University’s basketball team, it might as well be an undergrad recruiting video – there’s little tension, drama, or conflict to make it a full-fledged story worth telling. Worth noting in this program, though not reviewed, Strike: The Greatest Bowling Story Ever Told, which is based on this D Magazine article by Michael Mooney. — Peter Simek


We From Dallas

7:30 p.m. April 8, Angelika 6 | 10:15 p.m. April 12, Angelika 6

Grade: A-

There has been a desire to tell Dallas’ cultural history lately, from the Dallas: Sites art exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, which surveyed 50 years of North Texas visual art, to the Stark Club documentary, which makes the case for this city’s relevance to the history of club dance music. We From Dallas is the best effort yet, a deeply engrossing look back at Dallas’ peripheral role in the emergence of hip hop, from beat masters to break dancers. For the unfamiliar (like me) a picture emerges of a city with its spoon very much stiring the wider cultural pot, and yet contributing to growth of a genre of music with little recognition. From early DJs at KNON, to The D.O.C., and dance groups in the 2000s, anyone interested in Dallas culture – or the history of hip-hop – should make sure this film is on their to-watch list. — Peter Simek


Thank You a Lot

7:45 p.m. April 8, Angelika 8 | 4:30 p.m. April 9, Angelika 6

Grade: B-

A fresh find amid a glut of movies about the Austin music scene, this drama stars Texas country crooner James Hand as himself, surrounded by a fictional story about his talent-manager son (Blake DeLong) trying to reconcile. Despite a lack of acting experience, Hand gives the film a gritty authenticity that the rest of the heartfelt project often lacks.  — Todd Jorgenson



10:15 p.m. April 8, Angelika 8 | 7:45 p.m. April 9, Angelika 8

Grade: B 

Writer-director Tommy Oliver’s maiden effort, 1982, is the gut-wrenching story of a working-class black man in 1980s Philadelphia, whose world spins off its axis when his wife relapses into crack-cocaine addiction. To its benefit, the film is less concerned with black issues (a la Spike Lee) than it is with the emotional upheaval of a particular black family. The result is a deeply intimate and deeply tragic film about black manhood and human endurance. — Farraz Khan



Shorts Program 3

4 p.m. April 9, Angelika 4 | 7 p.m. April 10, Angelika 4

Blur is about a woman is obsessed with working on a painting, while she and her husband are acting out their lives in front of a camera crew, for unexplained reasons. It’s difficult to tell what’s real and what isn’t, which seems to be the point. (B-) Easy depicts a boy who’s into gymnastics struggles with idea that he might be gay or that the rest of the world thinks of all male gymnasts as gay, or something. This and Blur are more like impressionistic snapshots than actual stories. (B-) In Lambing Season, under the guise of being National Geographic filmmakers, a pregnant American woman and her husband travel to Ireland to meet the father she never knew. The two eventually share a moment of understanding, thanks to the difficult birth of a sheep. (B+) Three other shorts, not screened, are included in this program: Boy Scout, A Grand Canal, and Molly. — Jason Heid


Tomato Republic

7:15 p.m. April 9, Angelika 7 | 5:30 p.m. April 10, Angelika 8

Grade: B+

Be patient with Tomato Republic. It’s a sly little documentary which follows the seemingly innocuous – though hotly contested – mayoral race for the East Texas city of Jacksonville, TX. The three candidates – a good ol’ incumbent, a charismatic (and gay) restaurant owner, and a wet-behind-the-ears college debate champ – fight for the future of a city which has, like much of small town America, seen its city center rotted out by Wal-Mart, disinvestment, and dwindling resources. What emerges is a microcosmic look at the American moment, where the brass tacks of improving our communities runs up against citizen’s presumed political affiliations and cultural sensibilities. — Peter Simek



10:15 p.m. April 9, Angelika 8 | 4:15 p.m. April 10, Angelika 7

Grade: B-

I found myself immediately put off by William (Gethin Anthony), the central character in Mark Raso’s Copenhagen, which seems to be the point. He’s a prickly, self-centered, indulgent prig, who is on a European trip, ostensibly to find his family, but ends up trying to self-destruct his best friend’s relationship. He succeeds, in a way, and ends up alone in the foreign city, meeting the local Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen). The two pick up the familial trail, and William learns how to love in the process. Though at times his film is off-tone, stand-offish, and visually forced, Raso has a good grasp on slippery adolescent sensibility, making a film that flashes with moments of sincerity and emotional authenticity. — Peter Simek


Dom Hemingway

7:30 p.m. April 10, Angelika 6

Grade: C+

A handful of hilariously vulgar one-liners can’t rescue this caustic comedy in which an energetic Jude Law plays the title character, an arrogant and ill-tempered safecracker who is released after 12 years in a London prison, wanting revenge against some gangsters who owe him money. This misguided story of redemption is so obnoxious that any emotional connection seems impossible. — Todd Jorgenson


Heaven Is For Real

7:30 p.m, April 10 Cinemark West Plano

This well-meaning but heavy-handed Christian drama is based on the true story of Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), a rural Nebraska pastor who causes a spiritual crisis in his small town when he suspects his young son visited heaven during a near-death experience while in the hospital for a sudden illness. The doubters include Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale. — Todd Jorgenson


The Starck Club

7:30 p.m. April 12, Texas Theatre

UPDATE: I just got off the phone with Michael Cain, the director of The Stark Club, who informed me that film that I saw is not the final cut. For some reason, the festival shared a screener of an unfinished cut with the press without specifying it as such. So consider the words below a contribution to the process of getting the story told right, and not a review.

Since I last saw The Starck Club, the documentary film has been edited extensively, though it still runs into the problems of earlier cuts. The movie feels like it starts three or four times in the first 5 minutes, and the various openingns set the stage for what appears to be a film that will argue for the cultural relevance of Dallas’ much-touted 1980s bacchanalian night spot. But the film eventually devolves into a nostalgic romp through the annals of Stark Club lore. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the filmmakers intended to make a movie that will function like a class reunion of Dallas’ generation of new wave wild children.  But The Stark Club feels like it is trying to be more, with interviews from everyone from New Order’s Peter Hook to DJ Paul Oakenfold. Those two story lines — the Stark’s cultural agency in Dallas and the Stark’s influence in club and electronic musical history — run against each other, making for a clunky film. Chapters feel pinned onto the main narrative; major elements of the story (like the spread of ecstasy, or Stark’s supposed musical influence) are underdeveloped and insufficiently connected to the broader cultural moment; and sentimentality drowns perspective.— Peter Simek


The Face of Love

12:30 p.m. April 12, Angelika 6

Grade: C

Annette Bening and Ed Harris try to outshine subpar material in this trite romance about a widow who strikes up a relationship with a man bearing a striking resemblance to her late husband, but she tries to hide her motives from the doppelganger. Things get predictable from there as the central gimmick obscures any genuine emotional resonance. — Todd Jorgenson

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