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Julia Garner

“THE ASSISTANT”  My rating: B+ (Opens Feb. 21 at the Town Center and Rio)

87 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Just another day at the office becomes a moment of moral reckoning for the title character of “The Assistant,” a minimalist drama that only grows in potency the more you think about it.

Jane (Julia Garner) is a recent college graduate neck deep in her new job in the Lower Manhattan office of an independent film company. She gets up before dawn, naps during the Uber ride from Queens, and is the first person on site, turning on the lights, firing up the computers, brewing coffee.

Many a viewer will find the monotony all too familiar.

As the low man on the office totem pole, Jane is determined to keep her head down and establish a rep for quiet competence. She wants to be a producer some day.

A good chunk of Kitty Green’s film finds our protagonist doing both movie-related chores (Xeroxing spec scripts) and scutwork (donning rubber gloves to clean stains off the upholstery).

But the biggest chunk of her day is devoted to the Boss, a never-seen mogul (his muffled voice — heard through walls, open doorways and the telephone — is provided by Jay O. Sanders) of unassailable power.

Stationed outside the Boss’s private sanctum, Jane greets and ushers in guests, guards the door when the Boss doesn’t want to be disturbed, and fields phone calls.  She also is in charge of arranging transportation and lodging for the Boss’s frequent trips to the West Coast.

Writer/director Green is so good at nailing both Jane’s daily grind and the moments of gut-twisting anxiety (periodically she finds herself caught between the imperious Boss and his angry wife; more than once she endures a verbal chewing out from the executive suite) that the film’s true subject matter only slowly sneaks up on us.

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“DOWNHILL”  My rating: C 

89 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There’s a chill in the air of “Downhill,” and it’s only partly the result of five feet of perfect white powder.

Set in an Austrian ski resort, the latest from directing duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (“The Way Way Back”) offers Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell as vacationing Yanks who see the fissures in their relationship only widened by their high-altitude visit.

Billie and Pete seem pretty average.  She’s an attorney and appropriately self-assertive.

He’s some kind of executive who cannot put down his cel phone and tends to plan things out for his family — they have two tweener sons (Julian Gray, Ammon Jacob Ford) — without asking for their input. He maintains a Father-knows-best attitude behind his doofus-y exterior.

This is how they end up at a high-end resort at which the boys are the only kids in sight and the hot tubs tolerate only nude soaking.

Things come to a head when an outdoor lunch is interrupted by a controlled avalanche. The resort operators routinely set off blasts to loosen dangerous snowpack; this time the boiling wall of white comes shooting down the mountain and directly toward the diners.

Billie instinctively grabs her sons and hunkers down behind the table.  Pete grabs his phone and hightails it out of there. Turns out it’s a false alarm — just a cloud of mist reaches the visitors — but Pete’s act of cowardice will haunt him ever after.

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George MacKay

“1917”  My rating: B+

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Both epically sprawling and remarkably intimate, “1917” instantly establishes itself as one of the great war films.

Here’s the ugly truth of trench warfare during World War I: Rotting corpses, feasting rats, clouds of carrion-colonizing insects.

Yet along with these ghastly images, “1917” delivers a profoundly human story that taps into all sorts of emotions: terror, comradeship, compassion, bravery, hubris.

That the entire two-hour film is told entirely in what appears to be one uninterrupted shot makes it a technical tour de force (Roger Deakins is the d.p. and his work is jaw-dropping). But this is more than a cinematic gimmick. Without editing and alternating camera angles we’re forced to focus on the conflict in much the same way as its participants. There’s no way out.

The screenplay by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (reportedly inspired by wartime tales related by Mendes’ grandfather) is straightforward enough.

Two lance corporals in the British army in northern France — Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) — are sent on foot across nine miles of no man’s land to deliver a message. Another British unit  is planning an attack on “retreating” German troops.  But aerial surveillance shows that the enemy withdrawl is merely a strategic realignment, and that the Tommies are walking into a trap that could mean death for 1,600 of them.

So it’s a race against time that takes the two young soldiers through a shell-pocked landscape, into abandoned enemy trenches, through rubble-strewn farms and villages and down swollen rivers.

Though their journey is marked by growing suspense and flashes of real danger, there’s relatively little in the way of conventional combat here — just one incident with a German sniper. Mendes and Wilson-Cairns find plenty of moments of relative calm in which to explore their characters.

Blake, who was picked for the mission because his older brother is an officer in the target battalion (evidently the brass figure that a chance to save his sibling will prove motivational), is gung ho to get moving.  Schofield, several years older and much more combat savvy, wants to wait for nightfall. He’s overruled and bitter that his fate is in the hands of an amateur.

The two marvel at the complexity of German engineering (the Huns’ trench network is made of concrete with subterranean barracks outfitted with bunk beds; the Brits basically squat in the mire). They talk about duty and valor. The still-idealistic Blake is shocked to learn that Schofield has traded his combat medal to a French officer for a bottle of wine (“I was thirsty”).

They witness an aerial battle between British and German planes; from the ground it’s a weirdly peaceful, balletic experience…at least until fate drops one of the plummeting aircraft into their laps.

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Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlen

“LITTLE WOMEN” My rating: B+

134 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Each generation, apparently, gets its own cinematic “Little Women.” Count Greta Gerwig’s new version among the best.

Beautifully acted, classily mounted and delivering its emotional detonations with almost clocklike precision, this adaptation manages to do justice to Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel while viewing the tale through a protofeminist lens.

Gerwig lets us know what she’s up to in the opening scene, where aspiring writer Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) meets with a New York publisher to discuss her latest story.

“If the main character is a girl,” the bewhiskered editor (Tracy Letts) advises, “make sure she’s married by the end…or dead.  Doesn’t matter which.”

This is only the first of several moments in which the film takes aim at male privilege and arrogance in 19th century America (and, by implication, in today’s world).  Not that the film ever mounts a soapbox or goes strident.  Gerwig’s screenplay effortlessly incorporates a modern sensibility into the classic tale; it feels as if she discovered these  millennial attitudes  in the original story and merely amplifies them.

This “Women” is novel as well for its narrative juggling.  The film opens several years after the Civil War…the March sisters from Concord, Mass., are now young adults.

We’ve already seen Jo pursuing a career in the Big Apple.  We find sister Meg (Emma Watson) back in Concord; she’s married, a mother and struggling with money issues.  Little sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is in France studying painting under the watchful eye of their wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep, doing her best Maggie Smith).

There’s a fourth sister, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), whom we meet in the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the film.  (One of the great pleasures in Gerwig’s narrative sleight-of-hand is that we’re able to compare the mature women we first meet with their much more innocent selves seven years earlier.)

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Adam Sandler

“UNCUT GEMS” My rating: C+

135  minutes | MPAA rating: R

Funnyman Adam Sandler undergoes a remarkable transformation in  “Uncut Gems.”  He’s really, really effective as a Diamond District hustler whose debts and sins are rapidly closing in on him.

That said, the latest from the writing/directing Safdie Brothers (Benny and Josh) is like having an irate New Yawk cabbie screaming nonstop in your ear for two-plus hours.

Sandler plays Howard Ratner, the middle-aged proprietor of a Manhattan jewelry store.  He calls himself a jeweler but he’s not so much an expert in gemology as he is a full-time con artist, always looking for his next (not necessarily legal) kill.

Howard is an inveterate gambler who always is nurturing a get-rich-quick scheme.  He’s got a furious wife (Idina Menzel) and kids in the ‘burbs,  a girl squeeze (Julia Fox) he keeps in an apartment in the city, and a crushing gambling debt that finds him being stalked by a pair of underworld enforcers  (Tommy Dominik, Keith William Richards).

Howard’s sure that his latest scheme will turn everything around. He has somehow gotten his hands on a “black opal,” a fist-sized gem smuggled out of Africa.  He’s already arranged to have this spectacular rock sold by a prestigious auction house; surely it will leave him set for life. Or at least alive.

Or maybe not.  His streetsmart associate Demany (LaKeith Stansfield) introduces Howard to basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself, and most convincingly), who so loves the big opal that he asks to carry it around with him for a few days. He comes to regard it as his good luck charm.

Always looking for an edge, Howard agrees, figuring that a generous gesture now will turn the sports millionaire into a long-term bling buyer. Continue Reading »

Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Paul Walter Hauser

“RICHARD JEWELL” My rating: B

129 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Nearly 50 years ago the great New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wondered (in a review of Sam Peckilnpah’s “Straw Dogs,” I recall) whether fascist art was even possible.

Of course she hadn’t met late-stage Clint Eastwood.

Not that Eastwood is a fascist. But his right-leaning attitudes (in this case a big-time distrust of big government and the media, an attitude he shares with our President) are on full display in “Richard Jewell,” the fact-based story of a hero who overnight became a scapegoat.

Jewell, of course, was the security guard who at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta discovered an abandoned backpack containing several pipe bombs. He was instrumental in clearing civilians from the area; nevertheless, in the ensuing explosion two persons died and more than 100 were injured.

For a few days Jewell was a national hero; then the FBI decided he perfectly fit the profile of the hero bomber, a man (usually white, often a law enforcement wannabe) who sets up a crisis situation so that he can play the role of a hero in saving lives. And from that point on Richard Jewell’s life became a living hell.

Billy Ray’s screenplay introduces us to Richard  (a spectacular Paul Walter Hauser) in the months before the incident. He’s working in a government office pushing around a supply cart when he meets Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a combative attorney chafing under civil service bureaucracy.

Watson is initially amused by Richard, an obese fellow who years earlier had been fired from his job as a deputy sheriff and has a desperate (and wildly unrealistic) desire to get back into law enforcement. Richard is a doofus, no doubt, but a sweet and polite doofus. The two start sharing lunches, at least until Richard gets a job as a security guard at a nearby college.

That doesn’t last, either. He gets into physical confrontations with the students; he pulls over speeders on a nearby highway even though he has absolutely no jurisdiction off campus. Good news, though…with the Olympic games coming to town there’s a big demand for security personnel.

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Daniel Craig…Southern fried private eye

“KNIVES OUT” My rating: B (Opens wide on Nov. 27)

130 minutes | MPAA rating:

The genteel drawing-room murder mystery gets roughed up but emerges more or less intact in “Knives Out,” the latest from “it” director Rian Johnson (“Looper,” “The Last Jedi”).

What you’ve got here is a dead man, a house full of suspects (played by some very big names),  a Southern-gentleman detective who seems to have been dipped in molasses — and a gleefully satiric sense of humor.

Plus a lot of snarky attitude when it comes to privileged white folks.

The film begins with the housekeeper for famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) discovering her employer’s corpse.  His throat has been cut.

Apparently the crime (if it is a crime…it might be a very bizarre suicide) took place shortly after Harlan’s 85th birthday party, an event attended by a pack of relations crammed into the old man’s semi-spooky turn-of-the-last-century mansion (described by one cop as “practically a Clue board”). Apparently the evening (which we see in flashbacks) was marked by some discord — old Harlan was no pushover and he loved rubbing his family’s noses in their inadequacies.

The local officer in charge of the investigation (LaKeith Stanfield) has his hands full with the various children, in-laws and others, all of whom seem to have some motive for killing their Sugar Daddy and a bad attitude when it comes to dealing with authority. So he’s mildly relieved when a famous private eye, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), mysteriously shows up.

Benoit, who talks with a slow drawl so thick it drips sorghum, has been hired by an anonymous client to look into the case. He won’t stop until he gets answers. Think Matlock on Thorazine with a cannabis chaser.

Murder mysteries in this  vein (“Murder on the Orient Express,” “Gosford Park”) rely on a large cast of eccentrics to keep us engaged and guessing. “Knives Out” has a colorfully hateful bunch.

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Taika Waititi, Roman Griffin Davis

“JOJO RABBIT” My rating: C+r (Now showing)

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Jojo Rabbit” is one of those movies more satisfying in principle than in practice.

The latest from Kiwi auteur Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows,” “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “Thor: Ragnarok” and, of course, TV’s “Flight of the Conchords”) is nothing if not timely.

Waititi’s subject is right-wing political fanaticism — German Naziism, to be precise — and his methodology is that of off-the-wall satire.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

The title character is 10-year-old Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) — Jojo for short.  Jojo lives in Germany in the latter stages of World War II.  His father has gone off to fight for the Fuehrer in Italy…at least that’s the story his mom, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is sticking to.

Jojo is himself a worshipper of Hitler and all things Nazi. (Those uniforms! That invigorating aura of invincibility and racial superiority!) In fact, his adoring  imagination has conjured up a make-believe best friend…none other than Adolf himself (Waititi), who loves hanging out with Jojo and exudes childish enthusiasms and questionable advice.

Some of the film’s funniest material is front loaded…early on Jojo and his fat pal Yorki (Archie Yates) spend a weekend at a Hitler Youth camp where they are subjected to lectures on racial purity, practice lobbing grenades and gaze in gape-mouthed admiration at their chief instructor, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a one-eyed combat veteran rarely seen without his two flunkies, Finkel (Alfie Allen) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson).

The whole thing is like a Boy Scout rally with live ammunition.  Except that Jojo collapses when ordered to snap a bunny’s neck with his bare hands to prove his willingness to slay the enemies of the Reich. Apparently Jojo’s love of manly posing won’t be enough to make him a good National Socialist.

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Christian Bale, Matt Damon

“FORD v FERRARI” My rating: B

152 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

One needn’t care about car racing to get caught up in James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari,” a fact-based (well, mostly) bit of automotive/pop culture history fueled by engaging performances, a come-from-behind narrative and enough close calls on the track to have nervous viewers yearning for a Valium.

The tale begins  with driver/car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) winning the 1959 24 Hours of Lemans race despite experiencing some alarming physical issues.  Turns out he’s got a bad ticker;  that would be his last competition behind the wheel. From now on he’ll have to be content selling fancy cars to rich idiots.

Cut to Detroit where Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), intent on sexing up the Ford Motor Company’s bourgeoise brand, dispatches exec Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) to Europe.  The plan is for Ford to buy Ferrari; Detroit will continue to crank out station wagons and sedans; the Italians will retain their independence in hand-crafting race-winning machines.

Not only does the deal fall through, but old man Ferrari opines that Ford makes ugly cars in ugly factories….and that Henry Ford II is fat.

This can mean only one thing: War.

Ford recruits Shelby to create a Ford racing car from scratch…and to do it in a matter of months.

In turn, Shelby recruits Brit driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), whose volatile temper and refusal to kowtow to the money men has made him persona non grata in some racing circles…not to mention a target of the IRS. Thing is, Miles is more than just a supremely talented (if cranky) driver; he’s a car whisperer who can take a machine out for a spin and immediately identify everything that’s wrong with it and what must be done to improve its performance.

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Juan Pablo Olyslager, Mauricio Armas Zebadua

“TEMBLORES” My rating: B-

107 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Temblores (Tremors)” begins with an intervention.

Returning home one rainy night, Guatemalan businessman Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) discovers his entire family gathered in the living room of his posh domicile.  They’ve learned that Pablo is having an affair with another man and are determined to put an end to this abomination.

Their approaches differ.  Pablo’s sister cradles her sobbing sibling and insists that his gayness must be the result of childhood trauma. Her alpha male husband is sneeringly contemptuous.  Pablo’s mother finds a religious lesson: “This is a trial.” Dad is a denier: “It’ll blow over.”

Meanwhile Pablo’s model-pretty wife Isa (Diane Bathen) sits silently, wrapped up in her own cocoon of humiliation.

Their deliberations are interrupted by one of the small earthquakes that regularly wrack their region of Central America.  “God’s punishment,” asserts Mom.

Jayro Bustamente’s “Tremblores” follows Pablo as he moves into a shabby apartment with his lover, the good-natured Francisco (Mauricio Armas Zebadua), who works as a masseuse at a local clinic.  But almost immediately the repressive society around him kicks into high gear.

Pablo is fired from his high-paying  job as a consultant — the company adheres to a strict morality policy.  Isa goes to court where a judge declares Pedro a pedophile (he isn’t) and forbids him from seeing his two young children; the ruling also makes finding a new job impossible.

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“PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE” My rating: B 

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Looking like a period painting and moving with graceful deliberateness, Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” delivers a lesbian love story of aching delicacy.

But it’s more than that.

Set in the 1770s, the film follows a young woman painter, Marianne (Noemie Merlant), to an French island where she is deposited soaking wet on the beach. She’s been hired to paint another  young woman’s portrait…though she’s been warned it won’t be easy.

Her subject is Heloise (Adele Haenel), a wan beauty who, in the wake of the suicide of her older sister, has been brought home from the convent where she was raised so that she can marry the Milanese prince who was her dead sibling’s finance. His wealth will turn around the fortunes of Heloise’s financially strapped family. (Indeed, the clan’s castle has an eerie, half-empty feel that suggests they’ve been selling off furniture and fixtures to stay afloat.)

Thing is, the young man wants to know what this second sister looks like before committing to the the marriage.  Thus the portrait.

But as Heloise’s mother (Valeria Golino) notes, her daughter is waging a passive/aggressive war against the betrothal. Heloise refuses to pose, so Marianne will be introduced merely as a companion; she’ll have to observe Heloise, then make sketches of her subject once she returns to the privacy of her room. Continue Reading »

Issa Perica

“LES MISERABLES” My rating: B+

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

From its first shot Ladj Ly’s Oscar-nominated (for best international feature) “Les Miserables” informs us that, no, this is not yet another remake of Victor Hugo’s classic 19th century tale.

The first thing we see is the face of young Issa (Issa Perica), a 14-year-old African immigrant living in a crime-riddled Paris suburb (ironically, the same burg in which Hugo wrote his masterpiece).  Issa is wrapped in the flag — literally — to attend a rally celebrating the French national soccer team’s recent victory. With thousands of other sports-mad Parisians he stands in the Champs-Élysées  singing “The Marseillais” and letting loose with victory roars.

For one glorious, transcendent moment Issa feels genuinely French.  It won’t last.

Ly’s film is a rapidly percolating thriller that views life in an immigrant enclave from several perspectives.

As with “Training Day,” our guide to this world of crime and social upheaval is a cop new to the scene. Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) has just come to this seething ‘burb from a cozy provincial post. He’s assigned to a three-man team to learn the ropes…and is less than comforted by what he observes.

His new partners are Chris (Alexis Manenti), a cocky casual racist who relishes every opportunity to bully and bend the rules, and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), a long-time resident of the neighborhood who’s regarded by his fellow citizens as a traitor for becoming a cop.

The police are only one element of the neighborhood’s ever-changing social order.  The place is run by the Mayor (Steve Tientcheu), a former gangster who now serves as the town’s fixer; he’s like an old-fashioned ward heeler who wins votes by dishing favors, and he’s not above turning to violence to enforce his will.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, bearded dudes trying to coax the local kids into more-or-less civilized behavior, have little but contempt for both the Mayor and the police.

Meanwhile the gypsy operators of a traveling circus are on the warpath because some black teen has stolen the owner’s beloved lion cub.

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2019 OSCAR-NOMINATED DOCUMENTARY SHORTS  Overall rating: B+ 

“A SISTER” (Belgium, 16 minutes)  My rating: B  

It would be hard to find a more tension-filled 15 minutes of screen time than is delivered in Delphine Girard’s “A Sister.”

A car heading down the highway at night. At the wheel is a man; beside him a woman using her cel phone to call her sister to check in on her kids. We view them from the back seat, so we don’t really get a good look.

On the other end of the line is a police emergency dispatcher (Veerie Baetens) who quickly deduces that a kidnapping is in progress, asks carefully-posed questions (all “yes” or “no” answers, lest the driver catch on) and dispatches patrol cars to intervene.

It’s very well done, but here’s the catch:  It’s almost like a condensed remake of “The Guilty,” a 2018 Danish film with almost precisely the same premise.

“BROTHERHOOD” (Tunisia, 25 minutes) My rating: B

Family issues and sociopolitical concerns permeate Maryam Joobeur’s “Brotherhood,” in which a son’s return from fighting in Syria for Isis triggers upheaval in a family of Tunisian goat ranchers.

Father Mohammed (Mohamed Grayaa) is suspicious when his oldest boy Malek mysteriously appears with his new wife in tow. She’s covered from head to toe in black — all you can see are her eyes — and this display of fundamentalist piety only infuriates Mohammed, who views Isis fighters as murderers. His wife Salha, though, is thrilled to have her boy back in the fold.

Tensions percolate until Mohammed does something that can never be taken back, and which will probably mean the breakup of his family.

“THE NEIGHBOR’S WINDOW” (USA, 20 minutes) My rating: A

Marshall Curry’s “The Neighbor’s Window” is not only the best movie about voyeurism since Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,”  it’s one of the best movies of the year, period.

Brooklyn thirtysomethings Alli and Jacob (Maria Dizzia, Greg Keller) find themselves obsessed with the new neighbors across the street — a young couple who are forever having sex in front of their curtainless apartment windows.

For Alli and Jacob this is both titillation and a rebuke…she’s pregnant, they have two toddlers, and their sex life is nonexistent.

Curry’s script starts out darkly humorous as the couple watch their neighbors’ sexual shenanigans (“Disgraceful.” “Stop drooling.” “Whoa, that’s a new one.”) They even get a pair of binoculars to better catch the show. (“They’re like a car crash you can’t look away from.”  “Do they have jobs…or clothes?”)

But all this leads to jealousy and anger…our protagonists are too exhausted to even think about that sort of unbridled passion.

And then Curry’s film shifts effortlessly from comedy to tragedy, becoming a humanistic triumph that will leave viewers dealing with killer throat-lumps.

“SARIA” (USA, 23 minutes) My rating: B+

Set in a Guatemalan “orphanage” that feels uncomfortably like a Nazi work camp, Bryan Buckley’s “Saria” tells the true story of rebellion and mass escape by the teenage inmates.

It’s all seen through the eyes of Saria (Estefania Tellez), who dreams of making her way to the United States and, perhaps, making a little whoopee with Green Shirt, a resident of the boys’ dormitory.

These are kids who’ve been left to fend for themselves, first on the crime-riddled streets and now in an institution where they awaken each day to a matron banging on the bunkbeds and screaming, “Time to get up, bitches!”

No sense giving away the film’s tragic denouement…let’s just say “Saria” gives us reason to hope before having it all crash down on our heads.

“NEFTA FOOTBALL CLUB”  (Tunisia/France, 17 minutes) My rating: B

A couple of soccer-crazed Tunisian brothers (Eltayef Dhaoul, Mohamed Ali Ayari) are puzzled when they come across a headphone-wearing mule in the mountainous desert that separates Tunisia from Algeria.  Searching the baskets on the animal’s back, the older boy discovers a fortune in heroin. He tells is younger sibling that it’s laundry detergent and makes plans to sell the drugs.

Meanwhile two smugglers (Lyes Salem and Zichem Mesbah) wonder what has happened to the mule they trained to carry contraband across the border (it’s a drug mule, literally).  Turns out the animal is guided  by an Adele song that plays on the headphones.  But somehow the wrong song got played and now the animal is in the wind.

Yves Piat’s film is an extended joke, but a satisfying one featuring an ironic conclusion worthy of O. Henry.

| Robert W. Butler

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2019 OSCAR-NOMINATED DOCUMENTARY SHORTS  Overall rating: B+ 

“LIFE OVERTAKES” (Sweden/USA, 39 minutes) My rating: B+

In recent years Sweden has become a haven for refugees fleeing unrest in the Balkans and some of the former Soviet republics. But the children of these displaced families are paying a price.

Resignation Syndrome is a previously undiagnosed condition in which young children retreat from the insecurities of their world by going into a sort of coma. We meet youngsters like Daria, Karen and Leyla who gradually slipped into a dream world. Now they must be bathed and exercised by their parents; most are nourished through feeding tubes.

Horrifying and heartbreaking, John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s film shows what these families have gone through.  Daria’s parents were targeted by death squads for running an internet system independent of the government. Both were tortured and imprisoned; the mother was raped.
But in Sweden they are uninvited guests who must repeatedly apply for political asylum, and it is that uncertainty about the future — especially the possibility of deportation back to a country that wants to kill them — that triggers Resignation Syndrome in these youngsters.
But get this…once the family is granted permanent asylum in Sweden, the children start improving.  As one doctor observes, the parents’ almost mystical sense of hope is somehow transmitted to the sleeping child.
“LEARNING TO SKATEBOARD IN A WARZONE (IF YOU’RE A GIRL)”  (UK, 39 minutes) My rating: B
For more than a decade a private school in the heart of Kabul, Afghanistan, has quietly defied that country’s conventional thinking about the role of women by educating girls.
Here girls  get the expected instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as daily lessons in personal courage and standing up for one’s rights.
But as Carol Designer’s doc reveals, there’s more.  The girls are taught to skateboard in a large gymnasium outfitted with ramps and platforms for various stunts.  Yeah, they still wear head scarves and are pretty much covered from head to foot, but now they also sport helmets and knee pads.
All this is done on the QT.  Some of the instructors refused to have their faces shown in the film…they live in a dangerous world.  Others, like the tough lady in charge of the school, introduces a bit of swagger into their lives: “I’m not afraid of anything except God.”
“IN THE ABSENCE” (South Korea, 28 minutes) My rating: B
Yi Seung-Jun’s riveting and saddening film focuses on the 2014 sinking of the Korean ferry Sewol; more than half its nearly 500 passengers died.
This doc — which combines news footage, cel phone videos shot by the victims (most of the dead were high school students) and interviews with survivors and rescuers — is essentially a scream of rage.
The Korean Coast Guard was patently unprepared to deal with the disaster, the captain abandoned the ship early on, and passengers were told to stay in their rooms instead of going to the deck where they might have a chance pop rescue.

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