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TIFF Quickies with Gael García Bernal, Paprika Steen and more...

Nathaniel R reporting from the Toronto International Film Festival

Herewith very quick notes on five new films from world cinema, some with stars you'll recognize, that deserve lengthier word counts. That said, we're a week behind with TIFF reviews so we have to crank them out somehow -- better short-takes than no takes at all! 

The ever prolific Gael García Bernal continues to be a gift to world cinema. He has a small role in The Kindergarten Teacher (which... more on later) but fully carries Museo, a restless gem from Mexico. The movie begins with a formative father and son memory and memorable newsreel footage of an ancient statue being hauled across Mexico as a prized museum acquisition. Years later in 1985, the son Juan Nunez (García Bernal), or "Shorty," as his often derisive family calls him, remains obsessed with the story and robs the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City of 140 more mobile pre-Hispanic pieces...

The historic museum theft is a nail-biter and the rest of the movie a wandering what-next proposition as Juan and his friend Benjamin (Leonardo Ortizgris) attempt to unload the goods which is much harder than they imagined. The screenplay (which won the Silver Bear at Berlinale) by director Alonso Ruizpalacios and co-writer Manuel Alcalá lifts off from the question of cultural heritage and communal touchstones and who exactly they belong to. This question, timely at the moment in real life and the movies (see also Killmonger's self-righteous monologuing in his own museum heist in Black Panther), hangs over Museo with a rush of heady confusion and inchoate feeling. Highly recommended.

[Museo was apparently picked up by YouTube as part of their Spanish language originals program. Some reports suggest that it's already streaming there but I've been unable to find it to provide a link so perhaps you have to know where to look?]

Fig Tree
Another strong timely picture, this one from Israel by way of Ethiopia. Fig Tree, the feature directorial debut of female filmmaker Alamork Davidian, was nominated for Israel's Best Picture prize, the Ophir. The simple but urgent narrative is about a Jewish teenager whose family is planning to immigrate to Israel to escape the civil war raging in Ethiopia. She continually fears that her Christian boyfriend will be rounded up and forced to fight and hopes that they can arrange for his passage to Israel as well. Beautifully shot, with two outstanding sequences - one haunting involving a suicidal old man, and one slyly funny in which the family rehearses going through customs - Fig Tree is a fine debut. One wishes it provided a bit more clarity in its storytelling (given the complexities of its geographic and political situation) but perhaps nuances were lost in translation?

Duelles (Mothers' Instinct)
Bless filmmakers who embrace color, including Olivier Masset-Depasse (Illégal) right here. I was giggling throughout his new thriller from Belgium whenever I tried to imagine an American remake which would surely wash out both the highly saturated color palette and also ditch its pitch-black worldview and also one rather horny marital sex scene. The movie revolves around two neighboring housewives and best friends (well-played by Veerle Baetens and Anne Coesens) whose young sons are also inseparable. But when tragedy strikes, the bosom buddies are suddenly uncomfortable with each other. Resentments and slights and then full blown paranoia (not unjustified) follow. In the end I'm not sure the movie amounts to all that much but it's an entertaining watch. And there's not an ounce of fat on it at 97 minutes, so affectionate poisoned kisses to Masset-Depasse and his editors for keeping it tight.

P.S. I would also like to thank the filmmakers for leaving the cute cat that the boys play with out of the mayhem because whenever you see a pet in a thriller, you're only right to worry! 

That Time of Year
Paprika Steen (Applause, The Celebration) has long been one of Denmark's very best actresses. Occassionally though she moonlights as a director. Her third picture is the latest in a long long line of dysfunctional family holiday comedies.  I wish Steen were a little more ambitious behind the camera -- this subgenre is positively overflowing with titles, it's not just a staple of American indies! -- but she remains an indelible screen presence. For That Time of Year she's toned down her deliciously caustic wit as an actress (though some of that biting frankness is in the movie from other characters) and chosen to play more of an everywoman. Her mothering host character Katrine, the eldest daughter in an extended family, is loving and well intentioned but too tense to pull it all off and not totally aware of the ways in which she's failing. That Time of Year is pleasant, if no great shakes, with a few wonderful actorly bits sprinkled across the familiar tears and laughs of families in perpetual love/hate with each other during holiday get togethers. But the MVP of That Time of Year is the Jacob Lohmann (The Killing) as Katrine's absolute rock of a husband, sensitive but manly, and usually unruffled unless his children are hurting or he's trying to work magic in the crowded kitchen. Who wouldn't want to fall into his arms sobbing or laughing -- or both simultaneously, the most likely scenario during ever fraught family holidays.


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