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This Weekend at the Dallas International Film Festival

This is it, folks. Tonight at Union Station, the 2011 Dallas International Film Festival will announce the winners of its various competitions, honor some notables, and lead the fest into its closing weekend. The festival also makes a switch out of the Angelika Dallas, Magnolia, and NorthPark, and takes up residence at the Texas Theatre, Highland Park Village, and Angelika Plano. Here are our reviews/picks going into the weekend:

Friday

The Interrupters (4 p.m. at The Texas Theatre; April 9, 2:30 p.m. at Highland Park Village 1): If you see that Steve James has a new movie out, you see it. Perhaps the foremost documentarian of his generation and an heir to from-the-street documentary storytelling pioneered by Frederick Wiseman, James’ The Interrupters offers a mesmerizing glimpse at inner-city Chicago and the quiet heroes who risk their lives to save their community from violence. Plus, James will be at the festival to receive a Star Award. Don’t miss it. – Peter Simek

Documentary Shorts (4 p.m. – Angelika Plano 2): As with all of the short programs at this year’s festival, the quality of the films has ranged rather broadly. In the documentary shorts slate, the highlights include “Tussilago,” a animated dramatization of an interview with the former girlfriend of a West German terrorist, and “39-A: A Travel tale of Interminable,” a high brow spoof on art theory, deconstruction, documentaries, and reality itself. “Grandpa’s Wet Dream” is a curious entry. Briefly following 75-year-old Japanese porn star Shigeo Tokuda, it spends a third of its 16 minutes setting the audience up for the sensational revelation: that an ordinary middle-aged man with a wife and family was somehow roped into a decades-long career in the adult entertainment industry. The film then leads to a moment of self-reflection on the part of Tokuda, who is challenged by a friend to wonder what the legacy of his “acting” will be. At 16 minutes, we are not given much time with Tokuda, but what is most striking is the bland normalcy of the little man, calloused perhaps by a life mediocrity and districted by questions of legacy at any cost.

“Just About Famous” and “The High Level Bridge” generate laughs, but through widely different menas. Matt Mamula and Jason Kovacsev’s “Just About Famous” offers a brief glimpse into the world of celebrity impersonators, submerging us in the world just long enough to share a taste of the eccentric, un-hinged personalities that seem to be a job requirement for the gig. “The High Level Bridge” is a sardonic, black comedy by Canadian Trevor Anderson, who reflects upon the notorious history of a bridge in Edmonton that has been the setting of countless suicides, concluding by throwing the camera itself off the bridge. – Peter Simek

It’s About You (7:30 p.m. April 9 at Highland Park Village): This documentary about John Mellencamp’s music is the equivalent of listening to a box set of B-sides. Fanatics will savor and dissect every moment. Anyone with a milder appreciation of the artist is going to wish he’d waited to see the film on DVD, if at all, since it might not be half-bad as background music while folding laundry or catching up on some email at home.

Mellencamp invited an old buddy of his, and the buddy’s son, to grab their cameras and follow him on tour and during a series of recording sessions. They’d never made a film before, and it shows. There’s no attempt to reveal any insight into Mellencamp. For instance, we see footage of the musician and his wife being baptized in a church in Savannah. The movie doesn’t care to explain why. Instead we hear song upon song upon song. It’s almost wall-to-wall music, except for when the buddy-filmmaker decides to wax sentimental about the decline of the American small town, or how much he loves bare light bulbs. — Jason Heid

13 Assassins (10 p.m. – Angelika Plano): Y’all like blood? How ‘bout revenge? Oh, and what’s that now, hour-long fight scenes are your weak spot? Well step right up folks, 13 Assassins is here to please.

A quick rundown of how I chose what movies to see at this year’s DIFF: if the title had anything to do with killing or weaponry, I was in. 13 Assassins is about 12 samurais, and a 13th dude who kills people with rocks, a la David and Goliath. I’m soon going to use this logic when I make every day decisions, just to see how things progress. I see plenty of Death by Chocolate cakes and Murder, She Wrote in my future. But as I was saying, plenty of anticipatory build-up (A shamed family! A girl with no limbs! Or tongue!), coupled with a wide lens that made me feel like I was in an iMax theater, and13 Assassins had me hooked in the first 20 minutes. But it kept me in my seat for the next 120 minutes (yes, it’s 140 minutes long) was care to the individual characters, personal vendettas, and the aforementioned hour-long fight scene to end the movie.

As a warning, the first 20 minutes are almost unwatchable due to the gore, but stick it out. But be warned, it’s a film for a very specific audience, mainly the type of people who ask, in at theater full of people, “Does this 141 minute run time include the 14-minute bordello scene from the original Japanese print?” That dude was wearing a red beret all night, though, so unless he was going to a screening of Rushmore later, I think we can all just agree he might have been a little bonkers. — Bradford Pearson

Boy Wonder (10:30 p.m. – Highland Park Village 2): Boy Wonder is best as a realist reimagining of the Batman-style superhero story. Caleb Steinmeyer plays Sean Donovan, a young man who lost his mother when he was a boy and has been living with his recovering alcoholic father. Quiet and removed, the boy secretly attacks bad guys in the streets of Brooklyn by night, hoping he’ll find an opportunity to avenge his mother’s murder. Boy Wonder’s script isn’t the strongest, and as the film develops the initially enigmatic Sean turns into an emotional cliché. The catalyst to this transformation is Teresa Ames (Zulay Henao), a hotshot young detective, who spews out television cop talk and has an unbelievable predilection for knowing exactly where all the movie’s plot twists will lead us. Ames is too good a detective, sucking the mystery out of an initially intriguing dramatic conceit. – Peter Simek

Rainbows End (10:30 p.m. – The Texas Theatre): In the running for the zaniest, funniest, most enjoyable ride of the fest: Rainbow’s End, a bizarre, Spinal Tap-inspired mock doc about a group of musicians and oddballs from Nacogdoches, Texas, who set out on a rock ‘n’ roll odyssey to Los Angeles where they will record a session with outsider music legend, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy. What sets this band apart is that their drum set made with pieces of the space shuttle that exploded over Nacogdoches. Blurring fact and fiction, Rainbow’s End is populated with the kinds of eccentric fools that lend backwoods Texas its endearing mystique, from a bearded, baton twirling dandy, to a man with a howitzer canon who blows up cars. – Peter Simek

Saturday

The Trip To Bountiful (4:30 p.m. – The Texas Theatre): Shown in conjunction with the Horton Foote Festival, this year’s posthumous Star Award winner Horton Foote wrote the screenplay to the Academy Award nominated movie.

Beautiful Boy (3 p.m. – Angelika Plano 3): The film is a close-up study of a married couple working through an almost unimaginable catastrophe: their only son was the perpetrator of a college campus shooting in which more than a dozen students were killed, including the boy, who took his own life. Starring Michael Sheen and Maria Bello, director Shawn Ku’s camera rarely takes its steady gaze off the lead protagonists’ faces, creating a claustrophobic experience of raw emotional energy. Hard to bear at times, Beautiful Boy succeeds at using an extreme situation to approach something more universally common: the way the actions of those we love affect our own meaning and purpose in life. – Peter Simek

Competition Winners

Texas Competition: 2 p.m. – Texas Theatre

Shorts Award Winners: 4:30 p.m. – Highland Park Village 2

Target Narrative Feature Grand Jury Prize Winner: 7 p.m. – Highland Park Village 1

Sunday

Africa Diary (April 10, 5 p.m. – Highland Park Village 2): Dallas’ L.M. Kit Carson (Paris, Texas, Bottle Rocket) shot this documentary with cell-phone cameras, taking advantage of the access and intimacy provided by the medium to explore a deeply personal portrait of the Africa. Carson, who will be in attendance, traveled to Zambia, Mozambique, and South Africa.

Competition Winners:

Documentary Feature Audience Award Winner: 2:30 p.m. – Highland Park Village 1

Narrative Feature Audience Award Winner: 4:30 p.m. – Highland Park Village 1

Environmental Visions Grand Jury Prize Winner: 4 p.m. – Angelika Plano 2

Target Documentary Feature Grand Jury Prize: 7 p.m. – Highland Park Village