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Today at the Dallas International Film Festival (4/7/11)

Reviewed in today’s edition: Poetry, Prosecutor, Small Town Murder Songs, Arthur, Traveling, and the Shorts Competition 2. Also, links to our reviews of other movies showing today.

Reviews From Yesterday

Poetry (Repeats Today, 7 p.m. – Angelika 7): Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry excels in a rarified way: weaving the content of another artform into a movie so that the film transcends its own genre. The movie opens with an ominous sight: a dead body floating down a river outside a town in rural Korea. Soon the central character, a grandmother who lives alone with her grandson and works as a maid for a diabled man, realizes that the death is connected to her own life in an unsettling way. She enters a kind of state of shock, though the only visible change in her behavior is that she signs up for poetry class at a local cultural center. She struggles at first but is tremendously devoted to her studies, attending poetry readings at night while her days are spent either bathing the man she cares for or dealing with the aftermath of the death – both practically and psychologically.

Poetry is a subtle, beautiful movie about pain, loss, and suffering, but almost more importantly, how the experience of these things define and shape our experience of life. Jeong-hie Yun turns in an absolutely magnificent performance as Mija, the grandmother, and it is her ability to take the audience on such a deeply engrossing personal journey that allows Poetry to rise to the artistic stature of its title. – Peter Simek

Prosecutor (Repeats Today, 7:30 p.m. – Magnolia 5): There used to be a time when someone would commit genocide, hide out for a few years until the world forgot it happened, then slide back to a palace somewhere to live a life free of consequences. In 1998, world leaders created the International Criminal Court to handle these types of cases, ones that individual nations either could not or would not prosecute. The lead prosecutor of that court is Luis Moreno Ocampo, an Argentine and the focus of the stunning documentary Prosecutor.

The film succeeds on nearly every level. It gives the viewer background on the history of the ICC without dragging out the details; a succinct, three-minute history lesson wraps up the court’s life story. It shows the inherent difficulties in prosecuting worldwide cases, with a staff of only 300. And while the main focus is on Ocampo, Canadian director Barry Stevens was wise to incorporate the stories of his immediate peers: ICC attorneys from around the world, such as a Mennonite from Ontario who doubts the effectiveness of the ICC and eventually leaves and especially Ben Ferencz, the prosecutor in the Nuremberg Trials.

Stevens spent five years working with the ICC to gain access to Ocampo, and it shows in the depth of his storytelling. He follows Ocampo from his offices in The Hague to England, Sudan, and Uganda, gleaning insight and assessing the prosecutor’s role along the way. The portrait is not always flattering; scholars often question the role of the court and Ocampo’s intentions. But the viewer leaves knowing the cards stacked against Ocampo, and we root for him because of it. – Bradford Pearson

Small Town Murder Songs (Repeats Today, 10:15 p.m. – Magnolia 5): Small Town Murder Songs has a lot going for it. First of all, its title. If you locked me up for 10 years, then let me out and told me Cormac McCarthy wrote a new novel, and it was called Small Town Murder Songs, I would stand up and cheer that reclusive sonofabitch. Then its got Martha Plimpton and Jill Hennessy, two capable actresses who, in retrospect, deserved better than this movie.

The problem with Small Town Murder Songs isn’t its story; it’s the execution and pacing of the story. Set in small town (ha!) Ontario, the film revolves around the seemingly random murder of a stripper. For 60 minutes it hums along, building momentum, suspense, and, most importantly, the audience’s trust. Then the audience remembers, “Wait, this is only a 75 minute movie,” and then bam, within the course of one minute we find out who the killer is. No build-up, no suspense. Trust lost.

The producer would’ve been better served to throw another $100,000 at the script, allowing for at least 10 or 15 more minutes of exposition at the beginning of the film. The characters were underdeveloped purely because of the time restraints. There were real, meaningful characters somewhere in Small Town Murder Songs, but the running time didn’t allow the viewer to find them. (Side note: The lead in the film is Swedish actor Peter Stormare, or, in Seinfeld parlance, Slippery Pete from the “Frogger” episode. Part of my detachment from this film may have been based partly on the words, “Oh, you mean the holes,” ringing in my head.) – Bradford Pearson

Shorts Competition 2 (Repeats Today, 10:15 p.m.—Angelika 7): I always love catching shorts and festivals, and this second slate in the narrative competition program were my favorite of the festival. Deeper Than Yesterday: Winner of Sundance Grand Jury prize for best International Short, this film tells the story of a group of Russian sailors under water working on a mysterious project. As the film begins you’re not sure that where the actors are. They are beginning to deteriorate after months without surfacing. Like most submarine movies, it is very intense. Protect The Nation: One of my favorite shorts of the festival. The writer explores the violence visited on refugee population in South Africa by examining a young boy’s consideration of his own views. He asks, am I good? Am I bad? People are fleeing terrible conditions in other countries such as Zimbabwe only to be victimized as they seek refuge in South Aftica. Worst Enemy: A delightfully funny film. The main character is stuck in a full body girdle. Her efforts to extract herself are quite funny. I laughed until I cried at one line at the end of the film. A Seizure By Nathan Jones: The director explores, in a very realistic way, what it must be like to experience a seizure. Narcissism & Me: Very funny description of a young man, who seems to believe he is the center of the universe. The dialog is very clever dialog. Ex-Sex: An amusing look at sex after break up. Bad Dads: It’ll make any dad feel better that, “Well, I’m not the Worst dad.”  Michael Cera (Arrested Development, Juno) plays a young man attempting a connection with his dad, who has been absent for 17 years. Let’s just say, he doesn’t really get the idea of propriety. A very funny film.  – Bill Holston

Arthur (Does not repeat at fest. Opens wide April 8 ) : In this remake of a 1981 comedy about an obscenely wealthy man-boy who never grew up, Russell Brand steps into the title character originated by Dudley Moore. It’s a perfect fit for the cheekily naughty-boy persona for which Brand is known, and the movie is at its funniest when he’s rambling amusing asides and non sequiturs that feel like outtakes from a stand-up routine.

This updated version keeps many of Arthur’s more unseemly qualities off-screen. For instance, we hear him mention that he’s used the services of prostitutes in the past, but we don’t actually see him pick up and sleep with a hooker, as in the original film. There’s also a softening of the woman who wins his heart — in the original, Arthur first sees her shoplifting at Bergdorf Goodman, here it’s while she’s leading a tour of Grand Central Terminal. I don’t know why it was thought necessary to remove some of these slightly rougher edges, but neither are they particularly missed. I only wish some of the gooey sentimental moments of Arthur’s transformation into a slightly more mature human being had also been trimmed, as the last act drags (mostly due to less room devoted to snappy one-liners from Brand.)

Helen Mirren takes the role of Hobson (played by John Gielgud in the original), and it’s fun to watch her very proper English nanny indulge in such nonsense as trying on a Darth Vader mask. Jennifer Garner, as the woman Arthur is forced to marry if he doesn’t want to be cut off from the family fortune, and Greta Gerwig as his true love Naomi, both prove to be fine scene partners for Brand, but it’s really his star vehicle. And he shines. — Jason Heid

Traveling (Does not repeat): Anyone who manages to produce a movie of this level of quality on a shoestring budget, and shot in just 12 days, deserves some praise. Only, I wish I could have liked it more. It’s the story of wandering souls — a man preparing to serve a prison term, and a woman delivering her niece to the mother who’d deserted her years before — on a road trip from Phoenix to Austin. The biggest problem is a script with too many patches of dialogue that ring false — cutesy little lines that seem to have fallen in love with their own cleverness. The woman, Jen, isn’t eager to be alone for an extended car ride with 11-year-old Kaylee, so she practically begs a handsome hitchhiker, Andrew, to come with them. At first he and Jen flirt, then they fight for awhile, then for some reason they like each other again, and before you know it the three travelers have bonded and formed their own temporary makeshift family. I wish I could have been moved by this story, but I couldn’t get past the script’s pausing to congratulate itself for making an “obscure” Good Will Hunting reference. — Jason Heid

Other Reviews of Movies Showing Today

Blood Of Eagles (4 p.m. – Angelika 6): Read Wick’s take on Frontburner.

Beautiful Boy (7:30 p.m. – Angelika 6): Read our review here.

Jess + Moss (7 p.m. – Magnolia 4): Read our review here.

The Legend of Hells Gate (10 p.m – Angelika 6): Read our review here.

Surrogate Valentine (10:30 p.m. – Angelika 8): Read our review here.

Movies Showing Today With Good Buzz

How To Train Your Dragon (4:30 p.m – Magnolia 5): If being named to the short list for best animated film at the 2011 Academy Awards counts as good buzz, then, yeah, this one is a must. It is a wonderful film and would have taken home the Oscar if it had not been released the same year as Toy Story 3. Director and Tex Avery Award Recipient Dean DeBlois will be in attendance.