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Festival Files: 2018 Dallas International Film Festival, Dispatch #4

It’s the small victories in life that matter. One of the hottest post-weekend tickets fell to Carlos Lopez Estrada’s Blindspotting. Finding my comfortable seat fairly close in a jam-packed and energized house, it wasn’t long before Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot sauntered in and settled in the first row. Neck breaking territory, to say the least. It was then the gentleman sitting next to me leaned over and murmured, “Hey, at least we got better seats than an NFL star.” Small victories, indeed.

As for the film itself, it’s also a small victory of independent filmmaking. Part raucous buddy comedy and part simmering social commentary/protest, Blindspotting contains all the elements of being a huge breakout hit this summer.

The buddy comedy aspect comes as Estrada observes two lifelong friends — newly released ex convict Collin (Daveed Diggs) and short tempered Miles (Rafael Casal) — over the course of three days. Collin just wants to survive his halfway house existence and be freed from probation while Miles seems to be trying everything he can to land his buddy back in the slammer: carrying guns; getting in fights; smoking joints. Most of the humor derives from this updated Laurel and Hardy-esque dynamic. The ease with which actors Diggs and Casal interact is startling, and since they also wrote the script, their magnetism seems honed over a period of time.

Things do get tense, though. While driving home one night, Collin witnesses the police shooting of an unarmed man by a white police officer. Initially just part of the racial strife happening in the increasingly gentrified West Oakland neighborhood, it’s an act that will haunt Collin for the rest of the film.

What director Estrada has done is manufacture a timely film that deals with an epidemic in a surprisingly fleet footed way. Seamlessly blending several types of genre into one hugely entertaining film is not an easy thing to do. The shifts and starts Blindspotting makes reminds me of early Tarantino or especially Spike Lee. That the film can have you laughing endlessly one moment and then cringing over the image of a young child playing with a loaded gun the next exemplifies the assured hand that Estrada, Diggs and Casal exert.

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Going into Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, I was feeling a bit lethargic. Ninety-four minutes later I emerged frazzled and unnerved by the film’s manic and unique vision.

Imagine a psychologically distressed John Cassavetes film on acid. That’s the perfect description I can give it. And this may be actress Helena Howard’s debut film, but it’s a performance for the ages and one that deservedly won the jury acting prize at the festival this year.

Filmed in disorienting, jagged handheld style that rarely leaves the faces of its characters or the unkempt twisted hair of young Madeline, it’s probably best that the outside world is limited. An extremely interior film about the emotionally twisted relationship between troubled teenager Madeline and her “immersive acting” coach Evangeline (Molly Parker), Madeline’s Madeline is more of an experience rather than a straightforward narrative. The mechanics of a story are there but Decker has stripped her third feature film of any recognizable three-act structure and infused the film with a whirlwind of abstract images and difficult emotions. It’s not a matter of when young Madeline will break under the passive aggressive (and not so passive) will of the adults in her life, but how crazy things will get once she does.

Deconstructive one moment and meta-meta the next, Madeline’s Madeline is emotionally bruising, harrowingly funny and oddly moving. It’s disheartening that it remained one of the most coolly received and non-talked about films of the festival.

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The internet is a great thing. The development onto new frontiers in cyberspace and its virtual shadow will be a lively discussion for decades to come. Great media, both literal and visual, have already been produced about the limits and excess of this unknown platform of virtual reality existence.

Hao Wu’s People’s Republic of Desire makes a damning case that we already exist there. Following the lives and fabricated world of two popular Chinese streaming “hosts” on the popular webchat site YY.com, the documentary just made me feel sad for humanity, regardless of the groundbreaking fabrication of life the site produces.

Basically, it’s a streaming service (sans nakedness, surprisingly) that has millions of users watching their favorite people singing, eating, and cheering on the more wealthy “fans” who spend hundreds of thousands buying gifts and votes for their favorites. Culminating in a virtual popularity contest at the end of each year that seems to ultimately define the actual self-worth of these people, Wu’s film focuses on a male, Big Li, and female, Shen Man, as they navigate through their lives both online and off. Honestly, there’s no difference in either, since their whole world is focused on maintaining their status on YY.

For Shen Man, life seems especially stressful since she’s supporting her entire family, including bankrupt father and stepmother who live with her. For Big Li, his marriage suffers from the demands of his online profile, wherein his shock-jock styled loudness seems to be the only thing he cares for in life, besides laying in bed and checking his cell phone.

Some time is spent with poor, lowly “fans” who incessantly follow their favorites and pay money no matter how broke they are, which only deepens the unspoken recklessness of a society losing sight of what’s real and what’s not. Further explanation of people and deep pockets known as “agencies” supporting “hosts” and pushing their popularity through the roof for advantageous profits establishes a ruthless order of bureaucracy not far removed from any other business model.

Slowly, a fractured, lonely and awkward picture of our modern world emerges where everything is based on x and o programmed lies and false stability. I’m sure this was the point to Wu’s Sundance award-winning documentary, but it made it no more enjoyable to see such a vacuum of time and energy. Call it VR-exhaustion, but I couldn’t wait to get out of the theater and into the real world fast enough.

 

 

Festival Files: 2018 Dallas International Film Festival, Dispatch #2

Introducing his labor of love film titled Also Starring Austin, filmmaker Mike Blizzard confessed there are two swipes at the city of Dallas, one obvious and one not so obvious. The obvious one, which is a comment from one of the interviewees that Austin is still weird and cool because big idea guys from Dallas haven’t ventured in and ruined their town just yet, did hit a bit hard. But in lieu of good films, we let the comments slide. After all, we’re one big state that once wanted to secede from the entire Union, so how different can we really be?

Assembled from the clips of  over 120 various films, Also Starring Austin is exactly the type of regional filmmaking history I love. Directed by Blizzard and edited by Laura Colwell, the documentary is a rambunctious and sleekly cut together ode to the very unglamorous filmmaking scene of Austin, Texas from the 1920s to the present. Perhaps a better title would be “Austin Plays Itself.” Like Thom Anderson’s monumental film Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Blizzard utilizes scores of film clips to tell the evolving history of a city as it’s defined on celluloid.

Though much less scholarly than Anderson’s mammoth effort, bred from his distinctively dry background as a professor, Also Starring Austin does the same admirable job of surveying a city, its architectural bones, and its wavering culture throughout several decades of viewing via a wide angle lens. The tumultuous 60s … the independent burgeoning film scene of the 70s and 80s … and the financially provocative 90s are all explored in detailed fashion from film clips both macro (Spy Kids) and micro (David Boone’s early 80s short film Invasion of the Aluminum People, which no less than Jonathan Demme proclaimed to be a real American masterpiece).

Leaving no filmic stone unturned, Also Starring Austin also displays a playful sense of humor in the way editor Colwell ‘Frankenstein’s’ films together, so to speak, to create her own experiment. Watching scenes from the Coen Brothers’ debut film Blood Simple (1984) intercut with Ronald Moore’s z-grade apocalypse film Future-Kill (1985) not only injects a shrewd comment on Austin’s blank interchangeable urban architecture, but it reveals the broad canvas that no doubt lured so many to the city’s blank-canvas aesthetic.

Currently seeking distribution, Blizzard told me one of the only films he wasn’t able to include was the 1974 curiosity titled The Tomato That Ate Cleveland. If anyone knows of the whereabouts of that film’s missing reels, please notify the filmmaker asap. Until then, Also Starring Austin is as complete a retrospective course on Austin filmmaking that one can hope for.


Digging further into the documentary category, two films about musicians — Korn guitarist Brian “Head” Welch and Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto — couldn’t headline two more diverse talents. The real coup here? That both men are remarkably similar when it comes to finding spiritual equity within their hectic professions.

The more successful of the two is Ryuchi Sakamoto: Coda. Not only is it probably the best film I’ll see at DIFF, but it’s one of the best films of the year, period. Known to Western audiences mostly for his Oscar winning soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987) and Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), Stephen Schible’s documentary showcases portions of Sakamoto’s recognized music both through film clips and live performances. However, the immense power of the film is eventually relayed through several long observations of Sakamoto recording his work. Endlessly wandering desolate locations like the Arctic Circle or a rain-drenched forest to record sounds, the infectious child-like glee that sprays across his face when he finds and molds the right sound into his atmospheric music is the crux of the film.

Beyond his decades-long composer career, Schible also follows Sakamoto in his humanitarian work, protesting against global warming and his dabbling in photography. Nothing quite compares to the portion where Sakamoto visits the Fukushima restricted zone, though. Amongst the rubble and debilitated structures, he wants to see a piano that’s survived the flood (complete with water line marks). He plays it gently and later finds the exact moments to add this survivor’s sounds into his latest work. It’s a stunning moment of resiliency and it just shows the vibrancy that has kept Sakamoto living (and fighting cancer) for so long now.

Less successful (but still respectable) is Scott Mayo and Trey Hill’s Loud Krazy Love. The film’s world premiere, it charts the rock-and-roll-lifestyle-desolation-to-salvation journey of Korn guitarist Brian Welch. Nibbling at the edges of a faith-based film (largely since it was produced by the noble I Am Second foundation), the documentary tells its story in a no-frills-by-the-book manner, checking off the right emotions and hitting all the (literal) beats. Welch is undeniably a charismatic persona and his story is one worth telling. I just don’t know if it’s justified on the big screen.

Festival Files: 2018 Dallas International Film Festival, Dispatch #1

For better or worse, chaos is the force of a film festival. Everyone’s either buried in their cell phones, buried in their schedules or buried in conversation … rarely identifying with much else. It happened to me today. After grabbing my spot in line, and basically closing my eyes and pointing to the schedule to determine the toss-up of films about to screen, I kept wondering why everyone in front was staring at me. It took me a few minutes to realize that Brian Welch of the band Korn was literally two elbows behind me conducting an interview.

Two things crossed my mind: how did I not see this before and why is he wearing so much make-up for a radio interview? Regardless, I’m to blame for my own obliviousness to the greater world around me. Luckily, there are always the movies to ground us in those realities.

After two days, the festival has presented us with an array of good-to-great titles so far. The two misfires (which will get short shrift in later posts) have been few and far between. The best film so far (and carrying some of the loudest buzz) has been Yen Tan’s 1985. Filmed in inky black and white, 1985 details the skittishness of a young man named Adrien (a wonderful Cory Michael Smith) returning home to his Texas family from New York during the holidays. If the movies have taught us anything, Christmas reunions rarely yield better results than familial discord and terrorists taking over Nakatomi Plaza.

In this version of a personal holiday apocalypse, the young man is homosexual, gravely struggling with when and how to come out to his Bible-thumping father (Michael Chiklis) and subservient mother (Virginia Madsen) about his lifestyle. Couple that decision with the medical epidemic and uncertain furor brewing in America over the AIDS crisis and 1985 becomes a film about a specific place and time that widens into a crushing exploration of identity.

A few narrative cliches aside in the beginning (such as his father’s masculine chest pounding), Tan’s film overcomes those missteps, especially when Adrien reconnects with old girlfriend Carly (Jamie Chung) and the delicate way they dance around their past and newfound outlooks on life. There were times I wished the film solely focused on them. But, 1985 has more than that on it’s mind.

Technically, Tan allows for the emotions to weave in front of us in controlled long takes that provide each actor a moment to shine. Nothing is quite so heartbreaking as a make out session that begins in one place and ends in another very heavy mood, or the backyard conversation that slowly zooms in on Michael Chiklis as he reveals he’s not quite the cultural rube his son believes.

Before long, 1985 sneaks up on you as a masterful drama that lingers in your psyche for the nuanced ways its characters exude honesty. And, the fact it ends on an especially happy moment in Adrien’s life only compounds the sadness that’s spilled out before.


 

In the short film category, I’ve resigned myself to the belief that none of the efforts I appreciate ever win. By definition, a short film forces the filmmaker to compress his vision into a compact form. Most short films that win an award tell a simple story or parable. The ones that craft the biggest impression on me are the few whose atmosphere and style belie a higher attention to storytelling through mood and tone.

In that regard, the two short films that reside head and shoulders above the pack were Fry Day by Laura Moss and Lovestreams by Sean Buckelew. Both films do tell a unique story, but they’re framed, edited and composed with such veteran-like vitality that they put the rest to shame.

Fry Day follows teenager Lauryn (Jordyn DiNatale) as she wanders a dusk-laden Florida field at night taking and selling Polaroid pictures to groups of people. The reason everyone is joined there? To celebrate the execution of serial killer Ted Bundy. She meets a high school classmate and he goads her into joining him and his friends for a drive around the area. What begins as random teenage hijinks soon turns into something more sinister for Lauryn.

Director Moss, working mostly at night, carefully pushes in closer and closer on Lauryn as the film progresses. Actress DiNatale strikes the perfect balance of coy beauty and timid acquiescence. What the film reveals is quite shattering. It ultimately suggests that, even though its easy to put one evil person into the ground, there are many more bad people lurking in the fringes of naive adolescence.

Sean Buckelew’s animated Lovestreams begins in that all too familiar AOL-like Instant Messenger box that I lived in for about four years in the late 90’s, connecting with faceless (but not personality-less) people from around the country. Watching the chat between two people turn from friendly into romantic and then flowing headlong into a rush of digital/imagined lifetime between the two feels like a minuscule budgeted Ready Player One. I confess, I got more nostalgic over this than anything in Spielberg’s billion dollar adventure epic.

The Dallas International Film Festival runs from May 3-10 at the Landmark Magnolia West Village. Check http://www.dallasfilm.org for schedules and tickets.

 

Festival Files: Dallas International 2017, Remnants and Winners

Wrapping up over the weekend with the Texas premiere of James Gray’s much anticipated The Lost City of Z and an impressive slate of World Cinema choices, such as Johnny Ma’s Old Stone and Seong-hun Kim’s Tunnel, the 2017 Dallas International Film Festival validated its wish to exit with a bang rather than a whimper.

The final two choices for me were a deliberate exercise in lighter fare. After a week-long sampling of some pretty dour efforts, Leslie Iwerks’ Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table (top) and Ringo Lam’s Sky On Fire seemed like the perfect antidote to the bleakness.

Following a rather clichéd documentary formula, Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table exceeds not in format but in subject, as the best documentaries should. Exploring the life and career of New Orleans restaurateur Ella Brennan, Iwerks’ film has the luxury of still having most of the participants present to recall their experiences, including Brennan herself and a host of master chefs made famous in her wake. Outside of its first-person history lesson, the film is also a warmhearted, scrumptious documentary on the regional delicatessen of New Orleans food and its naturally bawdy desire to make everyone feel at home.

After breaking through into pop culture at the lip service of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino in the early 90’s (although I suppose savvy Asian film fans were aware of Ringo’s wham-bam aesthetic way before that), Sky On Fire is the fifth in his “On Fire” series.

Turning his attention to the medical field with a dense story of double (and triple) crosses involving stolen stem cells and a billion dollar conglomerate of evil scientists and lackie corporate body guards, Sky On Fire is needlessly convoluted and a bit contrived, but boy do things go smash so good. As festival artistic director James Faust said beforehand, the breaking glass budget on this thing must have been astronomical. It became quite the palette cleanser for me, even if it’s ultimately no more than a solid video rental on any other day.

Thank you and congrats to everyone involved for presenting such an event for the city of Dallas and its suburbs. We’re already pining for next year.

 

Complete list of jury and audience winners:

AUDIENCE AWARDS

Audience Award Short Film: NO OTHER WAY TO SAY IT
Audience Award Documentary Feature: DEALT
Audience Award Narrative Feature: BOMB CITY

TEXAS FEATURE COMPETITION

Special Jury Prize Winner: MUSTANG ISLAND
Grand Jury Prize Winner: MR. ROOSEVELT

ANIMATED SHORT 

Grand Jury Prize Animated Shorts Competition: MR. MADILA

SHORTS COMPETITIONS

Short Special Jury Prize, Performance: Arin MacLaine, SPRING
Short Special Jury Prize: HAIRAT
Short Grand Jury Prize: WHAT HAPPENED TO HER

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE COMPETITION

Special Jury Prize Winner, Artistry: SPETTACOLO
Grand Jury Prize Winner: QUEST

NARRATIVE FEATURE COMPETITION

Special Jury Prize Winner, Directing: HEARTSTONE
Grand Jury Prize Winner: THE RELATIONTRIP

 

 

Festival Files: Dallas International 2017, Dispatch #3 – ‘Unrest,’ ‘Katie Says Goodbye,’ ‘Los Presentes’

While physical fatigue is yet to set in, mental fatigue is nestling into my brain. Perhaps its the viewing choices I’ve made the last couple of days, but I find myself increasingly pining for glimmers of hope in a docket full of pretty morose subjects. Maybe that’s why I’m scheduling lighter fare in the upcoming days.

But before those moments of levity, one of the highlights of the fest so far tunnels down that morose hole like no other. Jennifer Brea’s Unrest is an unflinching and harrowing first person documentary about ME-CFS (myalgic encephalopathy or chronic fatigue syndrome) and the devastating effects it wrecks on the human body. Opening with grainy camera footage as Brea pulls her limp body onto her bed, the film charts both her personal struggle with the disease and its complicated and misunderstood history.

Gradually bringing other sufferers into the film through her Errol Morris-like interview technique, Unrest becomes a medical procedural as doctors, scientists and others lobby for more research and open dialogue. One of the more shocking episodes in Brea’s work details the case of a young Danish girl named Karina who was abruptly taken away from her family and institutionalized because her physician truly believed her illness was a psychosomatic result of her home life. Another portion deals with the varying degrees of illness (85% being female) and possible genetic links between mothers who suffer and the eventual diagnosis of their children.

Never too far removed from the center, though, are Jennifer and her stoic, faithful husband Omar as they provide an emotional foundation to the film. Watching some of her more private moments, with the camera poised inches from her face, almost become too personal to bear. As Brea describes the invisibility she and so many other sufferers feel, Unrest is a first person testimonial that bravely speaks for all the invisible.

 

A film whose bleak, unrelenting sadness did not fully win me over was Wayne Roberts’ Katie Says Goodbye. Packing the most star wattage on-screen yet (including supporting roles by Mary Steenburgen, Jim Belushi and Christopher Abbott), the film settles on the young, plucky but misguided Katie (Olivia Cooke). Promiscuous with any fella in the wind-swept Arizona town who gives her a ride home from her diner job, she socks away their money in hopes of getting to San Francisco one day. Then she meets new guy Bruno (Abbott) and falls head over heels in love …. although she doesn’t quite understand that her side job for money could complicate their relationship.

As Katie, Cooke (from Me, Earl and the Dying Girl) owns the film. And writer-director Roberts is wise to allow the camera to hold on her magically expressive face several times throughout the film, especially during the final touching moments. She gives a magnanimous heart to a confused young girl we care about, but at times the film feels utterly misogynistic and excessive. If the point is to create a modern, desert-fried Joan of Arc in Katie, then mission accomplished. Otherwise, Katie Says Goodbye is dour to the point of abstraction.

 

Even more perplexing, Alejandro Molina’s Los Presentes (The Present Ones) juggles a lot of ideas, but not many of them land successfully. Essentially a psychological thriller about the bifurcated mind of an actress named Ana working through rehearsals of Hamlet and playing Ophelia, the film desperately wants to be Persona (1966) or Mulholland Drive (2001).

Even though she seems to maintain the perfect life, with an attractive, wealthy husband and precocious kid, Ana allows something into her psyche and she gradually pushes her normal life away, choosing adulterous flings instead. Portrayed by two actresses (Marianna Burelli as the initially normal Ana and Camila Selser as the intruder Ana), Los Presentes casually flips between both women to explore the dichotomy in her personality.

On top of that psychological minefield, the idea of Ana playing Ophelia in Hamlet and the centuries-old dialogue about that character’s role as a dynamic female lends a meta-text to the film. If that’s not enough, Molina interjects a fairy tale over the entire film about warriors turning into mountains and unrequited love.

Clearly influenced by masters of Spanish cinema such as Raul Ruiz in its portmanteau narrative, Los Presentes ultimately becomes too obvious in its ‘artiness’ and too earnest in its desire to achieve a ‘wow’ ending.

The Dallas International Film Festival runs through Sunday, April 9.

Festival Files: Dallas International 2017, Dispatch #2 – ‘The Void,’ ‘City of Joy,’ ‘Gook’

Growing lines and excited chatter are just par for the course on a Saturday afternoon at the DIFF. Part of the communal fun of such an event is the weaving dialogue between volunteer staff, organizers and ticket holders: “Did you see so and so?” “I’m hoping to get into tonight’s screening.” “You have to see {blank}.” The possibilities and cinematic connections are endless.

With those endless possibilities in mind, I went into Madeleine Gavin’s City of Joy with no advance knowledge in hand. The first documentary I’ve seen at the festival so far, it certainly held up as the perfect type of film to discover at the festival. As a socialist-activist documentary, it’s purposeful. As a plaintive exposure to the horrors and genocide of an entire swath of Congolese women at the hands of soldiers fighting for multi-nationalist controlled mining operations, it’s just heartbreaking.

Deriving its title from the self-proclaimed “leadership center” created by Dr. Mukwege Mukengere, the place is essentially a halfway house for women raped and abused by the marauding hordes of soldiers who use violence and sexual assault as a weapon of terrorism. Their aim is simple. Enter a town and either kill everyone or rape all the women in front of their families so the village is abandoned and left to their mining operations. What Dr. Mukwege and activist Christine Schuler-Deschryver (a magnanimous woman present for a Q&A after the film) have done is try to reconcile a generation of women not only with themselves, but to rebuild their self-worth and give them the inner strength to go out and help others.

The film slowly focuses on several women in the center’s first graduating class, while also spiraling out to examine the larger historical and cultural clash of ideals and political skullduggery that’s led to the violence. Through modest strokes and simply allowing the women and their experiences to speak for themselves,  City of Joy is a redemptive journey through hell and back.

And just when we hope and wonder if brighter days are on the horizon, Schuler-Deschryver lamented the fact that Trump may be about to reverse so many of the steps towards peace that have been established within the last few years through his non renewal of certain agreements with corporations driving the madness for coltan. This off-hand comment made everyone’s heart sink in the theater and prompted people to quickly ask for the website and how they can help. The activism is alive and well.

 

Always a good time, one of the “Midnight Special” presentations included SXSW favorite The Void (pictured at top). Written and directed by Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, one can’t deny its gross-out effects and seamless monster design, but what I found most affecting beyond all the gore-hound window dressing was its simpler moments, such as the eerie and wordless things that appear towards the beginning of the film.

As local sheriff (Aaron Poole) and a variety of rural townsfolk become holed up in a half-deserted hospital, the “things,”  with their ominous presence and lurking-at-the-seams-movement, spell out a decidedly unnerving vibe. And did I mention they’re dressed from head to toe in white hooded outfits donning a black triangle over their eyes? Yes, that’s eerie.

Unfortunately, this low-fi and disturbing atmosphere is quickly replaced with nightmarish images and buckets of blood that coincide with Hellraiser-like satanic innuendo. My taste in horror films tends to veer with the less-is-more attitude. The Void opts for more-is-more.

 

Next to Jameson Brooks’ Bomb City (detailed in this previous post), the second best find of the festival is Justin Chon’s Gook. Also written by and starring Chon, the film takes place during the momentous 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. As if that coastal, festering city needed any more contention to set off its powder-keg foundation, Gook clearly establishes the inherent racism and violence from the very opening when Eli (Chon) is jumped by Latino gang members as he tries to buy several boxes of shoes for his fledgling store.

Compounding his problems is young Kamillah (a breakout performance by newcomer Simone Baker), an African-American neighborhood kid who routinely hangs around the store despite her brother’s threats against the Asian-American Eli. As the film builds towards the infamous night of riots, Gook is alternatively sweet and knowing about its milieu. Also like Bomb City, it culminates in a shocking act of violence that casts a light on the needless reverberations of pig-headed racism and deep-seated inabilities to accept others despite the color of their skin.

Gook moves effortlessly and looks terrific in its monochrome black and white images, shot by cinematographer Ante Cheng… who is actually still in film school at USC. Harboring all the earmarks of true independent cinema like the ones that can’t be found at Sundance anymore, Gook signals grassroots ambition from a talented set of newcomers and I look forward to whatever they do next.

The Dallas International Film Festival continues through Sunday, April 9.