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The Dallas International Film Festival: A Step-by-Step Guide to Cinematic Bliss

The Dallas International Film Festival: A Step-by-Step Guide to Cinematic Bliss
Tracie Louck / Art by Dan Zettwoch

You, the Dallas film lover, don't apologize for your passion. Even now, as spring's overly cheerful birds sing of weather reprieve, you smile and flash your laminate, effectively telling them to shove it. It's DIFF time, and that means 11 fake sick days of movies, galas and possible celebrity sightings.

Get hungry for local flavor, because Texas-centric cinema's permeation of the 2013 festival circuit victory-laps here, serving up deep-fried goodness on the big screen. The Dallas International Film Festival, calendar-pinned just after its cinematic brethren, acts as a coming-home party for many -- like Yen Tan's Pit Stop, a film that will break your small-town heart, then softly dab up your tears with an embroidered hankie.

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Click to embiggen
Dan Zettwoch

Austin film multihyphenate and alternative softball league left-center fielder Jonny Mars Plinkos through all possible job iterations. (Go ahead and make a drinking game out of his influences -- you'll get shitcanned.) He's balanced a starring role and producer title in Sean Gallagher's buzzy dramedy Good Night; you'll spot his mug again as a yearbook cast member of A Teacher, an obsessive power play written and directed by fellow 512-er, Hannah Fidell; and watch ancient seals be blown open as Mars emerges yet again as Ian, lead brooder for fictitious music group Crown of Horns in Kat Candler's short Black Metal.

The Bible Belt unbuckles further thanks to Chasing Shakespeare, a locally shot update of Romeo & Juliet by Oak Cliff's Norry Niven, and with He's More Famous Than You, an acting/directing double-up by Plano Senior High alum Michael Urie. And finally, adding the sauce to our cinematic barbecue, the water to our arthouse bong, is now-Austin director Jeff Nichols' third feature film, Mud, because it stars our favorite bongo-playing, shirtless totem animal, Matthew McConagh... McConahe... McConaugh... Oh, screw it, Magic Mike.

The Observer takes its role as a DIFF sponsor seriously, so we've put together the only guide you need. Use Audra Schroeder's brilliant Top Picks to navigate through the 175 film offerings. Prep yourself for uncomfortable Q&As, panels and potentially awkward social interactions with our illustrated how-to's. And remember, if someone asks you an academically rooted film question that you can't answer, just point toward a nearby bush, crowd or window ledge and shout "Hey! I just saw Matthew McConaughey!" It's the whole reason he exists. -- Jamie Laughlin, culture editor

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Click to embiggen
Dan Zettwoch

Lone Star State of Mind The Bounceback: Bryan Poyser got the Austin director bump with 2010's Lovers of Hate, the tale of two brothers at odds (Chris Doubek and Alex Karpovsky, who also star in DIFF selection Good Night). His latest film, The Bounceback, uses Austin as a backdrop and employs the yearly Air Sex Competition at the Alamo Drafthouse as a plot point. But it's really a breakup movie, propelled by Stan (Michael Stahl-David) and his ex, Cathy (Ashley Bell) as well as Sara Paxton and Zach Cregger in supporting roles stumbling through the streets of Austin, getting drunk and pondering their mistakes, which is very easy to do in Austin. 10 p.m. Saturday and 7:15 p.m. Sunday at the Angelika

Good Night: Austin director Sean Gallagher's dramedy takes the dinner party and reinvents it in this ensemble film. Leigh (Adriene Mishler) and Winston (Jonny Mars, who also produced the film) invite their closest friends over for her 29th birthday party, which serves a double purpose: She also reveals she has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Over the course of the evening, this revelation sends the partygoers, who include Alex Karpovsky, Todd Berger and Chris Doubek, through emotional and physical displays big and small. The cast's chemistry is palpable, which is no doubt a byproduct of them living together for a week before shooting. 4 p.m. Wednesday and 10 p.m. April 11 at the Angelika

He's Way More Famous Than You: You may recognize Plano Senior High alum Michael Urie from his time on Ugly Betty, but here he directs and plays himself in a mockumentary about actual celebrities trying to make themselves more famous via a fake "real" movie. Haley Feiffer also plays herself, a former star-on-the-rise whose career has stalled after starring in precious indie The Squid and the Whale, thus inspiring the desperate Feiffer to eclipse the fame of her actor ex-boyfriend. It's a very meta commentary on the celebrity food chain, and the plight of going from sort of famous to kinda-sorta famous. Ralph Macchio is also in it for some reason. See also: Urie stars in fellow DIFF selection Petunia. 7 p.m. Tuesday and 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Magnolia

A Teacher: The relationship between Texas high school teacher Diana (Lindsay Burdge) and her 17-year-old student (Will Brittain) is the centerpiece of A Teacher, which started out not as tabloid revision, but a personal "what if?" scenario for Austin writer and director Hannah Fidell. A Teacher is subtle in its self-destructive climb, moving through hallways and backseats until flirtation slowly becomes obsession. Burdge is excellent as the introverted Diana, who gets a perverse thrill from a teenage boy commanding her to take off her clothes. As we follow her gaze, assisted by the expert camerawork of Andrew Droz Palermo, we see what happens when a woman in a position of power subverts the role. RIYL: Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, with less of the Austrian psychosexual angst. 10:30 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Saturday at the Magnolia Chasing Shakespeare: The opening title sequence of Norry Niven's locally shot Chasing Shakespeare is almost as good as that of Lars Von Trier's Melancholia. Almost. It did, however, just win the 2013 SXSW audience award for Excellence in Title Design and introduces the Oak Cliff director's first feature film, a millennial update of Romeo & Juliet. (Alongside Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare seems more ripe for revision than ever.) Danny Glover, Graham Greene (The Green Mile, Dances With Wolves) and the ubiquitous Ashley Bell (also in Brian Poyser's The Bounceback) star in the film, part dramatic retelling, part spiritual metaphor. Fun fact: Niven's crew transformed downtown's Majestic Theatre for one of its most powerful scenes. 7 p.m. April 11 and 7:15 p.m. April 12 at the Angelika

 

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Dan Zettwoch

Domestic Bliss Between Us: Another "dinner party gone awkward" flick, Dan Mirvish's Between Us, adapted from Joe Hortua's play of the same name, focuses on the balances of power in two marriages. Set in the homes of couples Grace (Julia Stiles) and Carlo (Taye Diggs), and Sharyl (Melissa George) and Joel (David Harbour), the film vacillates between two nights, set years apart, when secrets are revealed, tensions are raised and relationships are tested. It's a fine effort by Mirvish, and Stiles especially gives a great performance, but it doesn't quite succeed in the transition from stage to screen. Fun fact: Mirvish was behind the Martin Eisenstadt fake pundit "hoax" of the 2008 presidential election. 7 p.m. Tuesday and 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Angelika

Dinner with Holly: And the awkward dinner party theme continues! Josh Crockett and Daniel Sinclair's short film Dinner With Holly poses the question of a menage a trois between the titular character (played by Bridget Moloney) and a married couple (Kristin Slaysman, Bob Turton). With just 12 minutes to tell the story, we're guessing there might be a few "I'm sorry"s. 7:15 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday at the Angelika

Laurence Anyways: Young Canadian director Xavier Dolan has already been getting Almod—var comparisons with his latest film. The titular character, played by Melvil Poupard, is a Montreal teacher who finally confronts his desire to be a woman and begins dressing and living as such. This, of course, has a chain reaction effect on his professional life and his long-term relationship with girlfriend Fred (Suzanne ClŽment). The '80s electro-pop soundtrack and couture clothing could have rendered the film nothing more than a glorified music video, but passionate performances from ClŽment and Poupard keep it above board. For the music nerds: The soundtrack features British group Visage's 1980 hit "Fade to Grey" and Quebec singer/artist Diane Dufresne. 9:45 p.m. Monday and 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Angelika Diving Normal: The love triangle is given a Manhattan update in Kristjan Thor's debut feature, an adaptation of Ashlin Halfnight's long-running play of the same name. Dana (Susie Abromeit) falls for artist Fulton (Philipp Karner), and also warms to Fulton's sweet, shy neighbor Gordon (Scotty Crowe). All three try to channel destructive, unhealthy elements in their lives and their feelings for each other and the film pivots when Fulton goes on a trip and Gordon, who has become Dana's protector, starts falling for her. 10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at the Angelika

Short Attention 
Span Theater Black Metal: Kat Candler's Black Metal is a counterpart of sorts to her 2012 short Hellion. Here, Jonny Mars (also in Good Night) plays the singer of a black metal band who must deal with mounting guilt after a teenage fan murders his teacher in allegiance with his favorite band. Mars is fantastic as the brooding singer, and the soundtrack is well paced with songs from Vesperian Sorrow and Pallbearer, but we also get a glimpse into his normal life, like trips to the grocery store. RIYL: 2009 black metal doc Until the Light Takes Us, condensed into 10 minutes. 10:30 p.m. Wednesday April 10, and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 11 at the Angelika

Old Man: An animated short about Charles Manson could go many ways, but this one is tastefully done, if such a thing can be said about anything involving the man who orchestrated serial murders. The film, directed and animated by Leah Shore, employs audio interviews with Manson, done by author Marlin Marynick from Corcoran State Prison. Shore's experimental, colorful style, along with Manson's grand theories and tangential memories, make for a perfect pairing. Worth finding: Shore's 2010 short "Boobatary," about a woman whose breasts can multitask. 7:30 p.m. Sunday and 5 p.m. Monday at the Angelika

Gun: An especially timely short, Spencer Gillis' Gun follows the emotional trajectory of new father Roy (Gabe Fazio), who purchases a gun after a break-in. He justifies it as a means of protecting his wife and child, but soon, Roy becomes obsessed with the weapon and the newfound power that comes with packing heat, and his trigger finger becomes less discriminating. 7:15 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday at the Angelika

Union Man: This 10-minute short by Bobby Lewis is a portrait of Earl Johnson, a janitor who, rather than lamenting his place in life, accepts his status and treats his job with pride. A quote from Oscar Wilde prefaces the black-and-white film: "There are moments when art attains almost to the dignity of manual labor." Through Johnson's eyes, we get a sense of what it means to work for a living, and he gives a face to those we often gloss over in our daily life. 7:15 p.m. Monday and 9:45 p.m. Tuesday at the Angelika

Catnip: Egress to Oblivion: This short by Jason Willis is only seven minutes long, which may or may not be the length of a catnip trip. There is much we don't know about catnip, apparently, and its dark side is explored in the style of '60s drug-scare films, including interviews with faux "experts" like a "doctor" at the Catnip Crisis Center, and images of cats rolling around in bathtubs. A truly important film for our meme-obsessed times. Fun fact: Your cat knows the difference between the real shit and that store-bought schwag you call catnip. And you will pay. 10:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Angelika

 

The Big Guns

Matthew McConaughey stars in Mud
Matthew McConaughey stars in Mud

Java Heat: I really hoped this was a rom-com about a lonely, widowed man (Mickey Rourke) who stops by his local coffee shop to pick up used coffee grounds for his organic garden and slowly falls in love with a quirky barista who brings him out of his shell. (Greenlight? Anyone?) Alas, Rourke stars as expensively suited crime boss Malik in this action flick, set on the island of Java, which accounts for his gruff, vaguely Middle Eastern accent. It also features Kellan Lutz as Jake Travers, a teacher/vigilante who Van Dammes his way through alleyways, mansions and interrogation rooms, intent on exacting justice. Just one problem: Malik ain't havin' it! Cue Rourke walking away from an explosion in slo-mo. Actual line from the movie: "We're cops, man. We gotta stick together." 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Look Cinema and 10:30 p.m. Friday at the Angelika

Mud: In the past few years, Matthew McConaughey's career has been revitalized. He played an aging stripper in Magic Mike and a fast-talking district attorney in Bernie, but Mud brings him back to very literal earth. In Jeff Nichols' third feature, he plays the film's namesake, an escaped convict who befriends two boys, Ellis and Neckbone, after they discover him hiding on an island near the banks of the Mississippi River. McConaughey is typically intense, Nichols is coming off critical acclaim for 2011's Take Shelter and Tye Sheridan's performance as the 14-year-old Ellis is inspired. See also: Our Matthew McConaughey paper dolls. 7:15 p.m. Friday at the Angelika

Sweetwater: Penned by twin brothers Logan and Noah Miller, Sweetwater attempts to recast the Western, even though it has all the elements that might define it as one. The movie is set in New Mexico in the 1800s and January Jones plays Sarah, a former prostitute who is newly married to Miguel (Eduardo Noriega), but there is also the matter of a religious zealot (Jason Isaacs) and an outsized sheriff (Ed Harris) who tries to help solve a murder. Cue Sarah's resulting lust for vengeance in the small town, and Sweetwater becomes rather campy rather fast. 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 10 p.m. Sunday at the Angelika

Blancanieves
Blancanieves

Globetrotters Jump: Irish filmmaker Kieron J. Walsh presents his fucked-up version of New Year's Eve with Jump, which revolves around a young woman's suicide attempt as the clock strikes 12, and the implications of such an exit. There's also some stolen money and her crime-boss father, and Walsh even finds time to work a love story in there. 4:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday at the Angelika

Reality: Italian films have the spotlight at DIFF this year, and one of the most anticipated is Matteo Garrone's Reality. Much more upbeat than Garrone's previous film, Gomorrah, Reality questions what success and celebrity really mean, and follows the quest of husband and father Luciano (Aniello Arena) as he tries to get on the TV show Big Brother. There are certainly nods to Fellini's work, especially the more celebratory, surreal sequences, as well as Robert DeNiro's Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. Via Luciano's quest for fame, Garrone ponders how often we're actually being observed, and whether we're OK with it. Fun fact: Arena, a former mafia hit man, is serving a life sentence for a double murder but was allowed daytime parole to film his parts. 7 p.m. April 11 at the Magnolia

Post Tenebras Lux: Carlos Reygadas' gorgeously shot film uses both rural and urban landscapes of Mexico to drive the narrative, which unfolds around a husband (Adolfo JimŽnez Castro) and wife (Nathalia Acevedo) attempting to reconcile their current and past lives. That narrative becomes a bit difficult to follow after a few jump cuts, but the naturalistic elements of the film balance it out, especially the opening scene, which gets very Malick. 12:15 p.m. Sunday and noon April 14 at the Magnolia

Azooma: Korea sure loves a revenge movie, and Lee Jiseung's Azooma puts the task in the hands of a woman played by newcomer Jang Young-nam. Seeking justice after her 10-year-old daughter is kidnapped and sexually assaulted, and finding the legal system no help, she decides to exact justice on her own terms, culminating in a scene that will make you never want to go to the dentist again. Observation: Between this film and Oldboy, Korea also seems to love dental torture. 4:30 p.m. Wednesday and 7:30 p.m. April 11 at the Magnolia

Blancanieves: Spanish director Pablo Berger revises the Snow White fairy tale in black and white and re-imagines the character, played by Macarena Garc’a, as a seductive, bull-fighting heroine. It's also a silent film, which renders the fairy tale element and costumery even more vital. 2:30 p.m. Sunday and 5 p.m. April 13 at the Magnolia

This is the Future

Sweetwater
Sweetwater

#PostModem: I wanted to hate this film because it has a hashtag in the title, but whereas other films have attempted viral marketing that way, #PostModem actually satirizes the idea and the approaching singularity. It's the follow-up to Miami filmmakers Jillian Mayer and Lucas Leyva's 2012 short Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, which re-imagined the 1962 art film La JetŽe with Luke Campbell from 2 Live Crew. In a series of hyper-edited scenes, we follow two friends, Mayer and Kayla DeLacerda, as they learn of a new product called MegaMega Upload, which helps you "back up your life." Worth finding: Mayer's video "I Am Your Grandma" will haunt your dreams. 10:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Angelika

The Apocalypse: Martin Starr (Freaks & Geeks, Party Down) stars in this short about a few bored friends whose collective thoughts signal the apocalypse, though not in the way we've come to view it in Hollywood blockbusters. In Andrew Zuchero's version, thoughts are explosive and dangerous, and it's easier to just not have them. Sounds like a sci-fi concept. But is it? 10:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Angelika

The Future: Rutger Hauer stars in this film that in no way resembles Bladerunner, but is nonetheless set in a ruined futurescape and based on the novel of a radical contemporary author, Roberto Bolaño. Chilean director Alicia Scherson tells the story of an orphaned brother (Luigi Ciardo) and sister (Manuella Martelli) living in Rome, and the relationship Martelli initiates with Hauer's blind Mr. Bruno, who is living alone in a dilapidated mansion. She initially plans to rob him, but their friendship deepens, and she finds a father figure in him. 4:30 p.m. Friday and 7:15 p.m. April 13 at the Magnolia

The Man from the Future: Brazilian director Claudio Torres explores time travel and our desire to right our wrongs and change the course of history. Wagner Moura is that man from the future, a scientist who has found a way to go back in time and win his old girlfriend back. 3 p.m. Sunday and 4 p.m. April 12 at the Magnolia

Throwbacks 8 ½: As part of the spotlight on Italian cinema this year, Fellini's 1963 fever-dream masterpiece, 8 1/2, makes a return to the big screen, which is the ideal way to view it. Fellini's celebrity satire, and the meta-commentary on filmmaking, still feels relevant today. Its opening sequence, in which we're introduced to Fellini's unconscious self, Guido Anselmi (Marcelo Mastroianni), remains unrivaled. 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Look Cinema and 5:30 p.m. April 13 at the Angelika The Sandlot: With summer on its way, Klyde Warren Park could be the perfect venue for an evening film series, don't you think? David Evans' 1993 baseball ensemble comedy The Sandlot is testing the waters, as DIFF presents a 20th anniversary screening of the quotable coming-of-age tale. Keep a count of how many times you hear "You're killing me, Smalls!" 8 p.m. Saturday at Klyde Warren Park

Characters Good Ol' Freda: Freda Kelly was the secretary of the Beatles' fan club for a decade, from the rise of Beatlemania to their early '70s break-up. Ryan White's documentary traces her early days with the band and highlights her extreme loyalty. There was a cult of personality around the Beatles, many hangers-on with self-involved intentions, but unbeknownst to many, Kelly was often the gatekeeper. 2:15 p.m. Saturday and 12:15 p.m. Sunday at the Angelika Iceberg Slim: A Portrait of a Pimp: Famed pimp Iceberg Slim (born Robert Beck) says his first "street poisoning" took place at his mother's Chicago beauty shop, where her clientele included an assortment of pimps and hookers. This eased him into a 40-year career as a pimp and, subsequently, he penned many well-received books on the life. Executive produced by Ice-T and featuring interviews with Snoop Dogg, Quincey Jones and others familiar with the game, Jorge Hinojosa's documentary explores Slim's legacy, and how it plays into the current cultural economy, especially in terms of hip-hop. 9:30 p.m. Monday and 7:15 p.m. Tuesday at the Angelika The Kings of Summer: Three teenage boys run away to the woods to build a makeshift home for themselves, away from the rules of their parents. This story has been told in countless different ways over the last century, but Jordan Vogt-Roberts is attempting a revision. Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and Biaggio (Moises Arias) play the kings, and though not a main character, Arias gives a standout performance as Biaggio, the Corey Feldman of the group. Add in Nick Offerman, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Megan Mullally to any film, really and you've got a sure thing. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and 10:15 p.m. April 11 at the Magnolia

42: One of the fest's "Centerpiece" films, Brian Helgeland's 42 is the story of baseball great Jackie Robinson, played by television vet Chadwick Boseman. Helgeland previously wrote screenplays for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, thus assuring Robinson's story will be told with the appropriate dramatic pacing and emotional heft. Harrison Ford plays Dodgers GM Branch Rickey, and even through layers of makeup, he still Harrison Fords the hell out of every scene he's in. 7:30 p.m. April 11 at Cinemark West Plano

Lord Montagu: Americans frothing over Downton Abbey will find something to pine for in Luke Korem's historical biopic of English nobleman and socialite Lord Edward Montagu. The Dallas-born director also co-wrote the script and produced, and gives us a look at the life of a man who turned a very public scandal into publicity for his family's storied estate, Beaulieu, which he turned into a museum to draw tourists to the region. Korem takes a measured look at Montagu's decisions both good and bad and the '60s costume party scenes at the Palace House will make you wish you were born in a different era. For the music nerds: The soundtrack is provided by Austin ambient collective Balmorhea. 5:15 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Sunday at the Magnolia

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