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The 17th Annual Toronto Jewish Film Festival

The Camera Obscura
Directed by María Victoria Menis

Well made yet rarely engrossing, The Camera Obscura follows a Jewish immigrant as she overcomes an awkward childhood and adolescence to eventually settle down with an older widower. And though her existence seems to be peaceful, Gertrudis (Mirta Bogdasarian) eventually finds herself drawn to an itinerant photographer that's been hired to take pictures of her family. Director María Victoria Menis admittedly does a nice job of instantly transforming Gertrudis into a figure worthy of the viewer's sympathy, as the character's less-than-breathtaking looks (she's labeled "ugly" by her brother while still in diapers) ensure that she's consistently passed over in favor of her far more aesthetically-pleasing siblings. It's only as Gertrudis enters adulthood that one's interest first starts to wane, with the almost relentlessly uneventful bent of the screenplay ultimately exacerbated by a pace that couldn't possibly be slower. There's subsequently little doubt that the absence of plot becomes increasingly problematic, which - despite the authentic and evocative atmosphere established (and perpetuated) by Menis - ensures that the movie is inevitably unable to pack the sort of emotional resonance that the filmmaker is clearly going for (with Menis' inability to effectively get inside Gertrudis' head dulling the impact of the character's climactic act of defiance).

out of

Pauwels Circus
Directed by Agnes Bensimon

Pauwels Circus documents lifelong clown Marquis Pauwels' ongoing efforts at ensuring his traveling circus remains in operation, as the outfit has been in his family for over 200 years and now looks to be passed on to yet another generation (in the form of Marquis' spunky son). Director Agnes Bensimon does an adept job of initially capturing the viewer's interest, with the emphasis placed on the ins and outs of running a circus in the 21st century (as well as on Marquis and company's rigorous efforts at perfecting their respective acts). There quickly reaches a point, however, at which the novelty of the Pauwels' admittedly off-kilter familial legacy wears off and the viewer is left with what essentially feels like a glorified home movie, which - unless one is personally acquainted with the Pauwels - ultimately results in an extraordinarily sluggish final 20 minutes that undermines the effectiveness of everything that preceded it. And while there's little doubt that the charisma of the film's subjects prevents it from becoming an all-out disaster, Paulwels Circus is simply unable to justify its existence as a stand-alone feature (ie this might've worked as a 10-minute segment on a news program).

out of

My First War
Directed by Yariv Mozer

My First War follows Israeli soldier Yariv Mozer as he documents his experiences during the 2006 Lebanon War, with the bulk of the proceedings detailing the would-be director's interviews with his wartime colleagues and also his ongoing experiences far, far from the battlefield. There's little doubt that Mozer's lack of experience behind the camera ultimately cements My First War's undeniable downfall, as the viewer is confronted with a series of entirely uninteresting and downright pointless sequences that result in an atmosphere that's aggressively uneventful. Mozer's penchant for lugging his camera into hopelessly (and uniformly) humdrum situations exacerbates the film's myriad of problems (as does his pretentious, almost nonsensical voice-over narration), with the consistent emphasis on random occurrences ensuring that My First War often resembles a tedious home-movie compilation. It's also worth noting that as nigh unwatchable as the film initially is, there reaches a point at which the war essentially ends and the whole thing becomes even more inconsequential as Mozer interviews his former comrades about their experiences during the lamentable battle. But Mozer's inability to give the viewer a single reason to care about any of this inevitably proves disastrous, with the end result an interminable, flat-out contemptible piece of work that surely does a disservice to the men and women who lost their lives during the month-long conflict.

no stars out of

Directed by Shmuel Beru

Though there's no mistaking the good intentions that have been infused into the proceedings, Zrubavel suffers from a pervasively amateurish atmosphere that ultimately becomes impossible to overlook - with filmmaker Shmuel Beru's decision to stress decidedly melodramatic plotlines undoubtedly exacerbating the movie's various problems. The film - which is set within Israel's Ethiopian community - follows the extended Zrubavel family through their various trials and tribulations, with a specific emphasis placed on the clan's stubborn patriarch's ongoing efforts at instilling old-fashioned values into his unabashedly modern children. It's clear right from the get-go that Zrubavel has been cobbled together mainly through the assistance of non-filmmakers, as the movie primarily possesses the feel of a community-theater project that just happens to have been captured on film. There are subsequently few elements here that have been designed to capture the interest of most viewers, with the almost eye-rollingly hackneyed nature of the various storylines - ie the central character's daughter wants to marry a man he doesn't approve of, his son is interested in pursuing a career as a musician, etc - effectively ensuring that the 72-minute running time often feels a whole lot longer.

out of

Bart Got A Room
Directed by Brian Hecker

Written and directed by Brian Hecker, Bart Got A Room follows likeable teenager Danny Stein (Steven J. Kaplan) as he attempts to secure a date for his high school's senior prom - with his tenacious efforts at convincing a pretty cheerleader (Ashley Benson's Alice) to accompany him inevitably rubbing his lifelong best friend (Alia Shawkat's Camille) the wrong way. It's a familiar premise that's generally employed to underwhelming effect by Hecker, as the filmmaker places a consistent emphasis on comedic elements of an almost egregiously silly nature - which ultimately does ensure that the movie, more often than not, essentially resembles a high-concept sitcom. And there's little doubt that the increasingly episodic structure results in a repetitive atmosphere that eventually becomes oppressive, with the inclusion of several eye-rollingly cartoonish interludes (ie Danny's father tests the thickness of a wall by making louder and louder sex noises) only exacerbating the less-than-authentic sensibilities of Hecker's screenplay. The personable performances - Kaplan is fine in the central role, while William H. Macy steals his all-too-few scenes as Danny's pop - play an instrumental part in preventing the movie's slide into all-out mediocrity, yet it's hard to deny that Bart Got A Room rarely holds the viewer's interest in as rapt a manner as Hecker presumably intended.

out of

© David Nusair