The second year of AFI Dallas was a big hit with locals, with ticket sales way over expectations. Big kudos have to go to fest director Michael Caine* and his stellar team for working out the kinks from last year's fest and making everything flow smoothly this year, while programming a huge lineup for Dallas cinephiles. Here are some of the pics; a rundown of this year's fest highlights is after the jump:

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Stars at the Fest

The stars came out for the fest this year. Helen Hunt, Mickey Rooney, Todd Wagner, Charlize Theron, Chris Wedge and Jack Lemmon (posthumously, of course) were all awarded AFI Dallas Star Awards. Also on hand: Director Vadim Perelman and Eva Amurri for The Life Before Her Eyes; Michael Addis for Heckler; Robert DeNiro, Barry Levinson, and Art Linson for What Just Happened?; Hunt and Josh Brolin for Then She Found Me; Theron, Stuart Townsend, Martin Henderson and Michelle Rodriguez for Battle in Seattle; and Public Enemy and The Polyphonic Spree.

DeNiro, Levinson and Linson were onhand for a Q&A following the afternoon screening of What Just Happened?. The film is a funny, if slightly uneven, insidery film about an aging Hollywood producer (DeNiro) struggling to get a Sean Penn flick cut to the studio's approval in time for the Cannes Film Festival, while negotiating back-and-forth between hard-nosed studio boss Lou (Catherine Keener) and the film's erratic, mood-swinging director (Michael Wincott) over the death of a dog in the film. He also has to get a surly, high-maintenance Bruce Willis to shave his Grizzly Adams beard before shooting commences on another film.

In the midst of all this, he's dealing with a teenage daughter (the lovely Kristen Stewart, soon to be playing Bella in Twilight) from one marriage while trying to reconcile his failed marriage to more recent wife Kelly (Robin Wright Penn). The film is sharply directed, though the converging story lines get a little unwieldy at times. DeNiro is very funny, as are Wincott, Stanley Tucci and John Turturro in side roles.

It's a Circus

One of my favorite films at this year's fest was Circus Rosaire, a documentary by Robin Bliley following the trials and travails of the Rosaire family, an eight-generation circus family who train animals for circus acts. The doc shows the hardships the family is up against: competing in the modern age against the appeal of television and the internet, protests by animal rights groups, and the ever-mounting costs of sustaining the animal refuge they maintain.

The film shows a side of circus animal training not shown much -- the Rosaires consider all of their animals -- grizzly bears, lions, tigers, chimps, horses and dogs -- to be a part of their family, and once they've taken in an animal they care for it for life. Chimp trainer Pam Rosaire-Zoppe raised an orphaned chimp, Newton, as her adopted son, even nursing him alongside her newborn daughter. Circus Rosaire is charming and straightforward, and the Rosaire family are a hardy crew of several generations, living alongside each other and their animals, trying to keep alive their circus dreams. Several of the family members (including Pam's newest "adopted" son, chimp Ricky) were there for the Q&A, and the crowd at the sold-out last screening seemed to thoroughly enjoy the film.

All in the Family

I took in a couple of the family fare offerings at the fest this year: Nim's Island (which just opened last weekend) and The Diamond Dog Caper. Nim's was cute but not great. Jodie Foster does an able job playing an agorophobic author who lives vicariously through the adventure tales of her alter-ego, an Indiana Jones-takeoff named Alex Rover. Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) plays Nim, a young girl living alone on an uncharted island with her scientist father.

Dad goes off to sea to discover some new sea organisms, leaving Nim on her own. A storm strands Dad at sea, pirates (in the form of tourists) threaten the tranquility of Nim's island paradise, and the real Alex Rover, who's been in contact with Nim doing research on volcanoes for her latest book, has to get past her fears to help the scared litle girl. It's a pretty film, very colorful, and Breslin is good as Nim, but she's a talented young actress and I'd like to see her taking on more challenging roles (ala Elle Fanning in Phoebe in Wonderland) than restricting herself to kiddie fare like Nim's and the upcoming Kit Kittredge American Girl movie (which, to be fair, may turn out to be great -- we'll see).

The Diamond Dog Caper is a mostly harmless kiddie tale in the vein of Home Alone or The Apple Dumpling Gang -- all smart kids and bumbling bad guys, with some cringe-worthy dialog, particularly in the scenes with the bad guys. French Stewart hams it up affably as Blackie, the bad guy boss, with Kevin P. Farley and Kelly Perine battling out the yuk-yuks as the sidekicks. The smart kid in this film is Owen, played by Luke Benward, whose charm and cuteness telegraph his potential as a locker-poster hottie (maybe Disney is paying attention ... Zac Efron won't be young forever).

There's a cute dog being used by the bad guys to sneak some stolen diamonds around, and smart, dorky Owen, an inventor and dog lover mourning the loss of his own dog, comes to the rescue. Peril and many booby-traps that involve bad guys getting smacked upside the head with various heavy objects ensue. It's a cute enough film, the kids in the audience certainly enjoyed it, and young Benward has potential to move on to other projects from this one.

Notes (Musical and Other)

Fest attendees were treated to performances by Public Enemy (in Dallas for the documentary about their music, Public Enemy: Welcome to the Terrordome, and The Polyphonic Spree, which sent the fest out on a high note with a spectacular performance at House of Blues for the Closing Night bash. There was also a special screening of The Wizard of Oz at Myerson Hall with a live score performed by the symphony. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get into the sold-out screening, but folks who were there called it "an event to remember," and a fest board member promised that they have plans to have more special screenings at future fests.

The festival lounge was a highlight this year; it was beautifully decorated and stocked round-the-clock with snackage and yummy finger foods. A nightly open bar featuring special drinks the "Bullseye" and the "Targetini," DJs keeping the lounge rocking until the wee hours, and Guitar Hero action in an adjacent room kept fest attendees returning night after night for unwinding after a hard day of screening films.

Also, I have to note that the shuttle service this year really made the fest easier on badgeholders. With screenings set at multiple venues around town, being able to catch a Lexus shuttle and be driven through the Dallas traffic by folks who know more about navigating it than those of us in from out of town made it much easier to get where you needed to go on time. I talked to many attendees who raved about how great the shuttle service was -- it's one improvement I hope they'll keep for next year.

The W Hotel is a great location for fest attendees to bunk down. It's located directly across the street from Festival Headquarters and the Lounge, and the fest hosted several events there, including panel discussions on the hotel's stunning Wet Deck up on the 16th floor, with a panoramic view of the Dallas skyline. I enjoyed taking in the Dallas nightlife scenery there; the hotel hosts Craft restaurant, one of the best (and spendiest!) eateries in town, and the chef there, upon learning that my daughter aspires to be a chef herself, very kindly gave her a tour of the kitchen, in spite of being surpised by Charlize Theron's VIP entourage arriving for a late lunch.

The Ghost Bar, where a couple of fest parties were held, is a happening place on the Dallas nightclub scene, frequented by many Dallas blondes in very skimpy (and presumably expensive) dresses -- it's definitely a "beautiful people" kind of place. The fest overall is much trendier and dressier than Austin's laid-back SXSW, with designer duds and valet parking in adundance, but still retains a "Texas-friendly" charm and openness.

Dallas is a friendly town, and the folks who live there have embraced the AFI Dallas Film Festival with open arms. Most of the screenings I attended, including kid-friendly screenings of Nim's Island and The Diamond Dog Caper, we're packed with enthusastic audiences. They had interesting, intelligent questions for the Q&As (and most of the audience stuck around for every Q&A, as well). Dallas is lucky to have AFI running this fest. With Michael Caine (who formerly ran the Deep Ellum Film Festival) at the helm, I look for AFI Dallas to continue to grow in prestige and excellence next year.

*Thanks to Robert Wilonksy for correcting me on misspelling Michael Cain's last name. I know Michael, and do know how he spells his name, I just screwed that up. He's a very nice guy, so hopefully he will forgive me.

CATEGORIES Cinematical