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“Operation Finale” Proves Slightly Less Banal Than Evil Itself

When the Third Reich went kaput, and Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler chucked their vile lives into the void rather than face this world’s justice, the detestable Adolf Eichmann, the “architect” of the führer’s Final Solution, slunk his sorry ass off to Argentina. There, under an assumed name, he lived with his family in a brick house on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, toiling at a Mercedes-Benz factory. But the thing about Nazis is they’re always still going to Nazi, no matter how quiet they should keep. As we see in Chris Weitz’s uneven caper-thriller Operation Finale, Eichmann (played by an appropriately sulfurous Ben Kingsley) couldn’t resist swanning into underground Nazi supper clubs and rallies, where he coyly allowed himself to be feted. If someone cracked the old joke about how, under the fascists, at least the trains ran on time, this glory hound would probably snap back, “Because of me!”

Weitz’s film, concerning a Mossad team’s 1960 hunt for Eichmann, is a sort of Argo Goes to Munich, blending heist-movie jollies with some moral inquiry into justice, revenge, torture, and execution. The mix is sometimes unpalatable: The gang breezily plots its big score and dances to boogie-woogie piano, but David Ben-Gurion himself (played by Simon Russell Beale) establishes the stakes thusly: “For the first time in our history, we will judge our executioner.” It’s almost held together by the face of Oscar Isaac, who plays Peter Malkin, the Mossad agent in charge of the mission to snatch the old murderer and sneak him to Israel for trial without the Argentine government catching on. Pulsing just inches above the movie-star smile is that knot of nerves between Isaac’s eyes, that pinch of worry that sets Isaac apart, even in a leading-man role. Early on, Isaac sharks about in smashing midcentury sports jackets, radiating Clooney-esque confidence and charm as Malkin tries to convince his superiors and colleagues that he can pull all this off. But he doesn’t look convinced himself. Nothing comes easy for the best Isaac characters, and they’re not blessed with the force of self to hide this. And then when things do seem to come easy for them, as in the case of his cocksure Star Wars flyboy, things really go to hell.

In Operation Finale’s best scenes, Weitz dramatizes the tension that’s always there in Isaac’s face, emphasizing the difference between the breezy caper films we might wish we could live in and the brutal messiness of actual life. We see Isaac’s Malkin painstakingly rehearse the moves he’ll use to seize and subdue his villain; we see him caught up, chokingly, at crucial moments, in the memory of his sister, who was murdered by the Nazis. But Isaac’s pained expressions, the way doubt and conscience kink up Malkin’s impulses toward heroism, ultimately prove more engaging and revealing than Matthew Orton’s script or much of Weitz’s staging.

The scenes of planning and teamwork, suspense and complication, work well enough, though the fact that the Israeli, German, and Argentine characters all speak their lines in English robs them of richness and specificity. They’re what mainstream Hollywood remains adept at, all momentum and banter, minor surprises and minor dread. Weitz and Co. prove adept at communicating several beats of story within a single arresting shot, and they do nice work with reflections, cramped quarters, and the nasty prevalence of anti-Semitism in Argentina.

The filmmakers prove less certain when working outside the templates of genre. In flashbacks, Weitz suggests the scale of Eichmann’s crimes through visions of trenches overflowing with Jewish corpses; the image is somehow obscene and banal at once, lacking the gravity even of the scenes in the X-Men movies of young Magneto at Auschwitz. After Eichmann gets grabbed — basic twentieth-century history ain’t a spoiler, people — the Mossad crew must, for reasons never quite made clear, coerce their captive into signing a statement declaring that he has agreed to be taken to Israel. They have just days to do this, before the departure of the only plane they can escape in, and before Argentine authorities discover their safe house. Their stern interrogator has no luck getting Eichmann — blindfolded, polite, pathetic — to sign. One team member keeps pushing for torture. Another balks that they should have just killed him already. But Malkin sees another way: Strike up something like a friendship with their captive, sharing cigarettes, listening to his wheezing stories of childhood as the Nazi is perched on the toilet, even telling the man who designed the death camps about the family that Malkin lost to them. Eichmann offers up the just following orders excuse and insists that there’s no reason he should cooperate: “Your lawyers and your lying press will try the man they think they know, not the one who sits before you now.”

Since Malkin is the hero, we know that this approach is the correct one, though Operation Finale never makes a case as to why, exactly. At times, it seems to be edging toward the tense colloquies of Steven Spielberg’s anguished, fascinating Munich, a film that found one of cinema’s greatest orchestrators of heroic violence ambivalent about the morality of his gift. But Weitz and Orton don’t dig in, don’t question Malkin’s choices, don’t honor the temptations of revenge, don’t manage to make us fear their hero getting too close to the desperate and manipulative Eichmann. Rather than interrogate the tools of Hollywood storytelling, as Spielberg did, they use them as crutches. Toward the end, as the plot lurches — like Argo or a 1990s rom-com — toward a mad dash to the airport, Eichmann suddenly is invested in Malkin’s inner life the same way that a supervillain tends to be caught up in his opposing hero’s, monologuing about his mad brilliance. Rather than the cagey, caged mastermind who later would play dumb at trial, this Eichmann is just another movie bad guy — and Operation Finale is just another movie.

Operation Finale
Directed by Chris Weitz
Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Opens August 31

 

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“Active Measures” Accidentally Makes Trump-Russia Collusion Sound Like Mad Propaganda

More a mega-thread than a movie, Jack Bryan’s tying-it-all-together Donald Trump–Russia doc connects its dots for 110 delirious minutes. Active Measures links Vladimir Putin’s rise to New York real estate to oligarchs buying Trump-branded condos to the poisoning of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko to the sale of 19 percent of the Russian oil company Rosneft to 77,000 more Pennsylvanians, Wisconsinites, and Michiganders pulling the lever for Trump than they did for Hillary Clinton. Few shots in Bryan’s film last longer than a second or two, always cutting from news photos to cable clips to footage of Putin smirking like he’s a little stinker to yet another screaming news headline, often with the words Trump and Russia helpfully highlighted. Tensely pulsing electronic music underscores great swathes of it, sometimes seemingly looped, sounding like the loading screen of some apocalyptic video game.

Active Measures is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the mind. By coming on so strong, so fevered, Bryan achieves the dubious feat of making his host of documented facts, reasonable inferences, and alarming subjects for further research all seem seem less persuasive than if they had been presented more soberly. Let me put it this way: I suspect that much of what’s asserted here by Bryan and his top-shelf roster of reporters, diplomats, and politicians is accurate. But as the film chugs along — dashing through the Russians’ manipulations and then invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, showing us a former Miss Hungary asserting that Trump once invited her to his hotel room — I found my certitude actually taxed. Yes, Trump is likely, in some way, in thrall to or under the thumb of Putin, but Bryan’s case is less journalistic than propagandistic, his film assembled like an endless negative campaign ad, just a series of dark assertions made and moved on from. With such conspiracies afoot, who has time to nail a fact down?

What’s especially frustrating is that Bryan has put together a team of experts who could walk us through the specifics, building a powerful case. Those inclined not to believe in a serious Trump-Putin connection might call the film’s cast the Deep State All-Stars. Thirty seconds in, Clinton herself gamely summarizes events of Putin’s childhood. And soon we’re hearing from John McCain, John Podesta, former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul, former CIA head James Woolsey, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and the like, along with reporters like Michael Isikoff and Nina Burleigh. On occasion, they get to speak more than a half sentence at a time, as when former CIA chief of staff Jeremy Bash explains the three key tactics of what the intelligence community calls Russia’s “active measures,” its underhanded efforts to exert influence around the world as its military and economic power wanes. These include, Bash tells us, propaganda, cyberattacks, “and to recruit, enlist, and in some cases even run agents of influence.” Good to know!

Too bad, then, that the film’s nadir comes almost immediately after, during a quick recapitulation of 2010 news stories alleging that thousands of Russians in America are engaged in some sort of spying for the Kremlin. “America Is Infested!” a headline bellows. And Bryan, who presumably must type all his emails with the caps lock on, cuts to a close-up of those words and then highlights them before our eyes. An ominous whooshing sound even plays. America is infested.

The source of that claim: the New York Post. This year offers vile surprises every day, but it’s still a jolt to see a lefty issue doc starring Hillary Clinton borrow an alarmist headline tainted with the language of McCarthy talking commies or Trump himself targeting immigrants — a headline from a Rupert Murdoch paper, no less. Bash explains a moment later that some of these foreign agents might not even realize they’re foreign agents, but the film’s paranoid momentum doesn’t let nuance sink in. His words are little match for the music, the imagery, the sharklike surging toward the next troubling connection. Sometimes Bryan simply invents a connection, as if there weren’t enough already. One low point juxtaposes Trump’s crack about preferring war heroes who didn’t get captured with a clip of Putin saying in an interview that anyone who suffered what McCain did in Vietnam would likely have “gone nuts.” Two dudes both being assholes isn’t evidence of an international conspiracy. Why show us that nonsense rather than buckle down and truly nail down the flow of cash to the world’s many Trump Towers, or the efforts of Putin to overturn the Magnitsky Act, or the evidence linking the murders of critical journalists to Putin, or the players involved in the softening of the 2016 GOP platform on the subject of Russia’s seizure of Ukraine?

Bryan’s film inspires a state of conspiracy-minded agitation, to its own detriment. One talking head brings up the conspiracy theories surrounding the unsolved murder of Seth Rich, the employee of the Democratic National Committee whom the loathsome Sean Hannity has suggested was the real source of the hacked DNC emails that were released through WikiLeaks. The film invites us to scoff at the idea that this murder was no random occurrence, but for the previous eighty minutes it’s been insisting that no occurrence is random. It invites precisely the mind-set in which bullshit beliefs take root.

The problem becomes clearest when Bryan turns to the rash of vicious made-up troll stories that proliferated on social media during the 2016 campaign. These headlines are so outlandish that no thinking person should be quick to believe them. But so are the quite-likely true connections that Bryan makes throughout the film. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. By presenting his case without it, Bryan makes that case look like it’s just more fake news.

Active Measures
Directed by Jack Bryan
Super LTD
Opens August 31, IFC Center
Available on demand

 

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“Pick of the Litter” Is a Good Dog Doc, Yes It Is, Yes It Is

It would be a surprise if Pick of the Litter doesn’t win over most viewers. Dana Nachman and Don Hardy’s film, charting the fates of a litter of puppies being trained to become guide dogs, opens with teary testimonials from blind men and women whose lives have been saved by furry companions so smart that they overruled their humans’ commands and avoided oncoming cars or surprise staircases. A heartbeat later, we’re watching Labrador pups tumble forth from their mother, their faces pink and wrinkly, their eyes not quite ready to open up and take in a world that doesn’t deserve such good boys. Yes, they are good boys and good girls, all of them. Such good, good puppies!

It’s a tough movie to review, in its way. The pups, named Primrose and Poppet and Phil and Potomac and Patriot, get dispatched from the organization Guide Dogs for the Blind to the homes of families dedicated to raising them for the first half of their training. As the filmmakers check in intermittently on the progress of all five sweet, sweet, good, good boys and good girls, yes they are, the critic’s mind might start worrying over questions like, “Wait, why did this one rambunctious puppy get moved to a new family?” or “Why don’t the filmmakers slow down and show us what exactly the day-to-day life of these volunteer trainers is like and how much work goes into it?” But, no dopes, the filmmakers instead emphasize the puppies themselves — such good boys and girls they are! — and the high emotions shared by their temporary human companions at meetings and partings. What are the concerns of coherent storytelling or in-depth documentation when all of these good boys and girls — yes they are! — are leaping and licking and tail-wagging and just being the best?

Some pups get cut — or “career changed” — from the program, usually for behaving like pups. They might get distracted on walks, follow their whims rather than march in lockstep with their human, chase bits of paper or interesting smells or some of the other very, very good boys and girls they meet on their rounds. As the roster of puppies slims, the film becomes more successful at actually showing viewers the rigors of becoming a guide dog, especially once the pups enter the second phase of their training.

Now back at Guide Dogs for the Blind, in San Rafael, California, the last dogs standing must master not just curbs and traffic but also what the trainers call “intelligent disobedience” — when to reject commands from their humans that might, say, send them both into the path of a car or down an elevator shaft. The best good boys and girls are the ones who know that sometimes they must not do what we tell them. The final tests we see the dogs work through are tense and fascinating. And just when your brains starts asking, “Hey, do these trainees even understand that they’re being trained or the very concept of failure?” you’re watching blind adults meet their new guide dogs, who leap up and lick their faces. By then, you’re probably a helpless blubbering pile of tears and good boys and good girls and yes you are, yes you ares.

Pick of the Litter
Directed by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy
Sundance Selects
Opens August 31, IFC Center

 

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We Recommend Watching “The Happytime Murders” but Only a Couple of Decades From Now

There are circumstances under which I could recommend The Happytime Murders, Brian Henson’s long-at-ninety-minutes detective comedy in which Melissa McCarthy, that trouper, strains to put fresh oomph into each of the dozens of “fuck you”s she snarls at curiously unmemorable puppets. But those circumstances would all involve at least a couple of decades having passed, when the now we live in has faded to a haze. The time to watch this would have to be when the dated subjects parodied in Todd Berger’s script (Basic Instinct! Nineties sitcoms!) have matured into emblems of a bygone age. When you might not bristle that the recurring “Asshole says what?”/“What?” routine was cribbed from Wayne’s World. When the half-assed, sub-Bright premise of felt-and-stuffing puppets as America’s most oppressed minority, serving as maids and denied representation in media, might play as a revealing illustration of the clueless insensitivity of our age’s producers right before things got better rather than become another pothole at that age’s nadir.

“Were they actually trying to say that being white in America is like being a human surrounded by puppets?” you might ask, as McCarthy’s character, detective Connie Edwards, crabs that her puppet detective partner, the drab Phil Philips (performed by Bill Barretta), shouldn’t take offense at her cracking jokes about the blueness of his felt. He bristles, and she pulls a mock-shock face, the oh, that’s racist now? sneer of a bigmouth about to rail against political correctness. The scene seems intended to suggest, of course, the discomfort of a real-life white person who (perhaps accidentally) says the wrong thing to a nonwhite person. It plays out, though, as if the differences that make some white people nervous are simultaneously small, goofy annoyances that everyone else needs to lighten up about and also differences so vast that they go beyond the level of species. If the analog, here, is meant to be that McCarthy is the American norm, a white cop, and puppet Phil a generic minority, the minority isn’t even categorically human. In 2018, Hollywood still needs to be reminded with some regularity that nonwhite people are.

So, a couple of decades from now, it might be interesting to watch this often glum detective procedural in which the populations who have endured American racism have been Find-Replaced with horny puppets. You might note that it came out the same year as BlacKkKlansman, Crazy Rich Asians, Sorry to Bother You, and Blindspotting. You’ll almost certainly get more out of McCarthy’s energetic but familiar performance then if you see it without so many other McCarthy performances in your recent memory. She reveals no new angles to her brawling comedy here, not even when her character gets ripshit high snorting a puppet drug lord’s cocaine-grade sugar crystals, but she also never turns mawkish, as she did in Tammy.

A couple of jokes work now, and made me laugh out loud, especially one involving an erotic entanglement between a puppet cow and a puppet octopus, and several delivered by Maya Rudolph, who plays the detective’s old-school noir moll secretary, Bubbles. One set piece involving vigorous puppet sex and Silly String ejaculate, meant to be a showstopper, only set me laughing with a cut to Bubbles, gently annoyed in the next room, pulling a bottle of Windex out from beneath the desk. She’s had to deal with this all before.

The director, Brian Henson, is the son of Jim Henson and the chairman of the Jim Henson Company. He’s an accomplished puppeteer and director; he helmed 1992’s excellent The Muppet Christmas Carol. He also created Puppet Up!, an adults-only improv puppet theater and TV show, in which puppeteers, using quite Muppet-y creations from the workshop, act out R-rated short-form comedy scenes. Short-form improv demands inspiration rather than logic or storytelling, and much of the humor in Happytime Murders reflects that impulse. Take the bit where Elizabeth Banks, playing an actress turned stripper at a puppet club, performs (in jean shorts!) on a stage for the pleasure of horny bunnies. “This is arousing my Peter Rabbit!” a bunny exclaims. Then Banks whips out a carrot, which sets the bunnies howling, especially when she begins peeling it, right onstage, making it rain on her patrons with thin orange slivers. This turns on one bunny so much he shouts, “We’re not in the briar patch anymore!”

Those are three jokes, only one of which is funny (Banks peels her carrot with great lusty cheer), and none of which make sense. Isn’t the whole thing about rabbits that they fuck like rabbits, in the briar patch? In a Puppet Up! show, the cast would move on from that to something new and unrelated. Happytime Murders, though, demands that we take its world somewhat seriously, that we invest ourselves in the tensions between people and puppets, that we buy into its by-the-book serial-killer narrative, which comes complete with planted clues and a tragic backstory. But the details of it seem thoughtlessly improvised.

Coming after Crank Yankers, Team America: World Police, Meet the Feebles, and Wonder Showzen, none of the giddy raunch in Happytime Murders is new. What is: the name “Henson” on a movie inviting us to giggle at puppet pubes. (Both this and Puppet Up! carry the production shingle “Henson Alternative.”) Some viewers, perhaps, might be shocked at the association of Mr. Rainbow Connection with scenes set in porno shops, strip clubs, and drug dens. What jolted me, though, was seeing the Henson name all over a project that’s so often bland and listless, so tame in its designs, so limited in its imagination, so joyless in its execution. With Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Robert Zemeckis aspired to a cartoon Chinatown. For his own genre-bent L.A. noir, Henson seems only to be aiming as high as the few jokeless scenes in The Naked Gun movies. The characters may be made of fabric, but nothing here is deeply felt.

The Happytime Murders
Directed by Brian Henson
STX Entertainment
Opens August 24

 

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“Maison du Bonheur” Isn’t Just a Doc About Life With a Charming Parisian — It’s a Vacation

Fittingly, in place of a title card at the start of her 16mm delight Maison du Bonheur, Canadian independent filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz offers up a shot of a welcome mat. “Maison du Bonheur” it reads, inviting us into the home and the film. The former belongs to Juliane Sellam, a charming, chatty, vivacious astrologer who has lived in the same apartment in Paris’s Montmartre district for half a century. The latter is Bohdanowicz’s hourlong assemblage documenting a July visiting Sellam, studying her routines, taking in her talk, marveling at the gardenias in the windows, the blooms as dazzling as the July 14 fireworks we’ll see later.

The film is a portrait of a woman, 77 at the time of filming, and her home, dedicated to processes — behold Sellam’s recipe for bread for Shabbat — and striking still-life shots. Here are fruit and herbs in bowls before an open window, a breeze easing through them; here are the fashionable Sellam’s pumps and heels, a collection Galapagan in abundance and variety. Sellam speaks with enthusiasm as she waters her flowers, bakes a cake, gets her nails and hair done, or gives Bohdanowicz an astrological reading. She explains about how she refuses to leave the apartment without makeup, how much she loves not having had plastic surgery, how her late husband would buy her three or four pairs of shoes at a time. We see old photographs of Sellam in smashing gowns and watch her snack with her sister, both of whom must be gently told, when toasting each other for Bohdanowicz, not to look at the camera. (That camera: a hand-cranked Bolex.)

Bohdanowicz undertook the project without having previously met her subject, but for both the filmmaker and her audience, making Sellam’s acquaintance proves a rare pleasure. The cozy blissfulness of Bohdanowicz’s study might be suggested by a consideration of the film’s two moments of tension. One comes late, when Bohdanowicz has left the maison for a day trip to a Normandy beach, not far from a town where she once had lived, quite unhappily; on this excursion, she gets caught in the rain and shoots its glum patter on the sidewalk. (Sellam calls as Bohdanowicz schleps home on the bus, checking whether the filmmaker will make it back in time for dinner.)

That rainstorm is the darkest occurrence in the film, but Bohdanowicz does capture one brief moment of anxiety. Early on, Bohdanowicz, a stranger and guest and filmmaker, tells us in a filmed diary that she suspects that Sellam has heard the previous diaries she has shot late at night. You might tense up, as I did, at the thought of her host and subject listening in on Bohdanowicz’s own processes, on both her acclimation to sharing Sellam’s life and her thoughts on how best to capture it all. But rest assured, it’s one that something sweet comes of: What Sellam seems to have heard was Bohdanowicz lamenting that on this trip to Paris, she had not yet found an excellent pastry. Her host, the next day, remedies this, and it’s both delightful — and a little cruel — that Sellam gives us so much time to regard the dessert in question.

Maison du Bonheur
Directed by Sofia Bohdanowicz
Opens August 24, Metrograph

 

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“Crime + Punishment” Exposes the Heroic Fight to Change Policing From Within

Several weeks ago, as BlacKkKlansman debuted in theaters, Boots Riley, the writer-director-radical behind that satiric marvel Sorry to Bother You, tweeted a brash callout. “After 40 years of cop shows and cop movies,” he wrote, “did we really need one more movie where it’s supposed to be about racism but the cops are the actual heroes of the film and the most effective force against racism?”

Riley later deleted this rhetorical question, and he has expressed admiration, elsewhere, for Lee’s film. His concern, it must be noted, is written right into the script of BlacKkKlansman, which is hardly a brief for the Blue Lives Matter crowd. Patrice, the college radical played by Laura Harrier, insists that a minority cop could never force significant change upon a racist police department. Lasting change, she insists, must come from outside. The undercover cop hero never mounts much of an argument against her, and despite the heroics of his Klan-busting unit, BlacKkKlansman is at best ambivalent about the prospect of him transforming the department itself.

Stephen Maing’s searing documentary Crime + Punishment offers a fuller look at the question of what can be accomplished from inside, revealing both the personal toll fighting the system can exact but also the urgent necessity of such battles. Through sensitive portraiture and vigorous investigative reporting, it tracks the struggle of minority police officers within the NYPD to reshape the culture of law enforcement itself. “The reality of it is law enforcement uses black bodies to generate revenue,” bluntly states one officer, Edwin Raymond. He’s a member of what came to be known as the NYPD 12, a band of minority cops who in 2015 sued New York City and its police department over the pressure put on officers by supervisors to meet monthly quotas of arrests and summonses. Such quotas are illegal, and the NYPD has long insisted its cops are held to none, but Crime + Punishment, shot between 2014 and 2017, again and again demonstrates otherwise. Listen to the surreptitiously recorded sergeant beseeching an officer to score his “collar, collar, collar, collar for the month.” Fume at the printout itemizing the brass’ expectations for office productivity, filched from an office. And witness the cruel tragedy of men and women arrested, ripped from their lives, and sent to Rikers Island for months on end, only to see their cases dismissed due to a lack of evidence.

Between 2007 and 2015, a staggering 900,000 summonses issued by NYPD officers were dismissed. Crime + Punishment makes it clear that, whether or not it’s official policy, quota systems have long ruled at the NYPD. The reasons for this prove complex. Raymond insists that it has much to do with the raising of money through fees and fines; he argues that the economic abuses that the police in Ferguson, Missouri, long visited upon their city’s most vulnerable citizens were inspired by the NYPD’s example. Also bound up in this, of course, are the long-gone stop-and-frisk policy and the more durable mandate toward “broken windows” or “quality of life” policing, the aggressive punishment of petty crimes as a preventative measure against serious ones. The calculus is bald: More arrests equals more “productivity” equals more revenue equals more opportunities to insist that the streets have been made more safe.

But safe for who? The officers, citizens, and lawyers profiled in Crime + Punishment — like so many nonwhite New Yorkers — all attest to the dehumanizing horrors of years spent under constant threat of arrests and summonses, of detainments and strip searches, of the possibility of confrontations that go wrong. The film’s wrenching centerpiece is the 2014 death of Eric Garner, killed due to “compression of neck, compression of chest, and prone positioning during physical restraint by police” who suspected him of selling loose cigarettes.

The case brought by the NYPD 12 has brought some change. As we see in Maing’s film, NYPD commissioner James O’Neill in 2017 sent an email to all officers declaring that the NYPD “does not and will not” use quotas; this past February, all officers were required to undergo a training session that stipulated that quota systems were verboten and called for any cop facing pressure to meet a required number of tickets or arrests to report to internal affairs. Whether that results in actual change remains to be seen. What is clear, though, is the cost paid by these whistle-blowing cops. Maing captures them receiving blowback: denied promotions, busted down to miserable street patrols on dead blocks, subjected to disingenuously negative performance reviews, cited for nonsensical violations. One officer, a mother, reveals her fear that her life will be upended by being put on midnight shifts. A retired cop, supportive of the NYPD 12, drops by a gathering to lay out for them all the ways that the top brass can use “performance monitoring” programs against them. When one officer tells the others always to wear a “vest” on duty — as in, bulletproof — it’s impossible to judge whether this precaution is over the top.

For all its investigative rigor and sympathetic character studies, Maing’s film also proves arresting in its compositions, its moody, city-spanning drone photography, its occasional playful looseness. But its power rises from the courage of its subjects, men and women who don’t necessarily want to be fighting the system — they’re eager to be out there in their city, policing the way they consider just. One heartening sequence finds an NYPD 12 cop attempting to talk down a furious man outside a bodega. The customer spits the foulest of invective about the shop’s owner, but the cop — rather than restraining him or citing him with a drunk and disorderly — tells him, again and again, with unflagging warmth, that it’s over and spend your money somewhere else. It’s the answer that BlacKkKlansman’s hero cop never musters to that college radical’s talk of pigs: Doing the job right is all the justification anyone would ever need for doing the job at all.

Crime + Punishment
Directed by Stephen Maing
Hulu and IFC Films
Opens August 24, IFC Center
Premieres August 24 on Hulu

 

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The Thrilling “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” Invites You to Rage With the Champ

Here’s as thrilling a vision as you’re likely to see on a screen this year: young John McEnroe, in the short-shorts and curls of his peak years, tossing a tennis ball up above his head and then leaping, twisting, smashing his racket into it, blasting it across the rust-red clay court of Roland-Garros. We see this again and again, in fluid slow motion that invites us to regard it as we might the time-lapse blooming of a flower, or Eadweard Muybridge’s famous movement study of a horse’s gait. McEnroe’s airborne convulsions are complex, beautiful, balletic, slightly akimbo, fiercely intimidating, an act of will and rage performed beyond conscious thought. It is the gathering and release of a ferocious power. Adding to the sense of delicious might: Director Julien Faraut has scored this to the seedily rousing chug of Sonic Youth’s “The Sprawl.”

And making it even better: McEnroe himself didn’t want this filmed. The footage, like most of the searching cine-essay John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, was shot in competition at the French Open in the early 1980s by Gil de Kermadec, a filmmaker specializing in the study of tennis technique. The whir of the specialized camera equipped for slow-motion shots seemed a roar on a hushed tennis court, another distraction for the sensitive champion to rail against. De Kermadec, we learn, had come to believe that the performance of athletes in competition differed from their performance in drills or tutorials, so he captured them in actual matches. He produced a contemporary study of McEnroe’s technique, complete with early Eighties computer animation charting every pivot of his serve. Faraut’s film draws upon that but is mostly assembled from a trove of 16mm footage de Kermadec’s team shot at Roland-Garros between 1981 and 1985, often intimate close-ups of a great caught up in his greatness.

The invigorating first third investigates the fundamentals of McEnroe’s game. Actor and filmmaker Mathieu Amalric narrates, drawing our attention to McEnroe’s unpredictable backhand, his confidence rushing to the net for a drop shot, and what we could call the illegibility of his serve. Nothing in those gyrations offers any indication of where the ball might be headed. Especially revealing — moving, even — is a series of points where we only see McEnroe’s side of the court. We witness his serve, his tracking of the ball, his hustle to return the return, his intensity and concentration, the union of strategic thinking and peak-human reflexes.

Much of the film, as you might expect, is given over to its star’s on-court outbursts. What becomes clear, watching McEnroe harangue line judges and intrusive photographers, is that the rages were birthed in a disappointed agony, a disgust at a world with inhabitants who persistently failed to see what he did. “Show me the mark,” he says, insistently, repeatedly, to chair umpires, seeking the overthrow of a call. Shrewdly, Faraut never offers us a replay, leaving us to stew in McEnroe’s aggrieved certainty. Somewhat inevitably, Amalric’s narration becomes a psychological and philosophical interrogation of McEnroe, offering extended comparisons of the athlete to a film director (those drop shots are his way of calling “cut!”) or an actor, particularly Tom Hulce, who studied tennis’ enfant terrible for his starring turn as Vienna’s problematic child prodigy in Amadeus.

Some of these assertions prove more convincing than others, but what’s indisputable is the suspenseful power of the film’s final stretch, a timestamped walk-through of the French Open’s 1984 men’s final. McEnroe, that year enjoying what is still the highest win rate in the sport’s history, at first seems to be cruising to an easy victory over Czechoslovakia’s Ivan Lendl. But then something goes wrong. From there, Faraut’s film doesn’t just put us courtside — it steeps us in the legend’s boiling mind.

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection
Directed by Julien Faraut
Oscilloscope Laboratories
Opens August 22, Film Forum

 

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“We the Animals” Is a Wild, Tender, Thrilling Tale of Coming of Age Queer

Brawling yet tender, wild yet rigorously controlled, first-time fiction director Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals is an impressionistic swirl of a film about masculinity, about abuse, about growing up queer, about chaotic family life, about the jumble of incidents and stirrings through which a child discovers a self. It’s essentially plotless yet dense with incident, even with its share of shocks. Much of its beautiful, sometimes tragic power comes from a sense of stasis. For the family at its heart, everything seems to be in constant, even terrifying disorder, and yet nothing really changes — not after one son discovers he’s different, not even after Dad knocks out Mom’s teeth.

Adapted from Justin Torres’s autobiographical novel, Zagar’s film immerses us in the adolescence of Jonah (Evan Rosado), the youngest of three vigorously rambunctious, perennially shirtless brothers coming up rough in upstate New York. Zagar captures their childhoods in hurtling wide shots of kids running amuck: chest-beating forest play, feral screaming in an abandoned silo; raiding the fridge, they jab their hands into peanut butter and lick off their fingers. Zagar and cinematographer Zak Mulligan, who have collaborated on Zagar’s documentary films, shot We the Animals on Super 16mm film, utilizing wide lenses, tracking the kids as they bound across glades or kitchens rather than fussily staging their movements. The result is a freewheeling, intimate, hazy look, marked by a graininess that suggests not just home movies but the memory of home movies. Sequences of the boys bounding about have that endless-summer warmth: the sun in your hair, that essence of endless, aimless childhood.

Their parents love each other, and them, but are volatile and overwhelmed. Their cars break down, their bosses are assholes, their near-feral kiddos limit their options. And, sometimes, the father (Raúl Castillo) hits the mother (Sheila Vand). Those rowdy wide shots are complemented by raw and delicate close-ups; it’s terrifying when the energy of the former bursts into the latter, when a huggy family dogpile inspires the boys to slap their father’s bare back in imitation of his own occasional violence.

Zagar punctuates all this with inky animated reveries lifted from Jonah’s notebook and imagination. He hides under the bed at night, writing stories and drawing cartoons, making sense of the tumult. An older neighbor boy shows the brothers some cable TV pornography, including a flash of man on man; those undulations work their way into Jonah’s daydreams. It’s only at the film’s end that he has begun to understand how he’s different from his brothers — a contrast explored in two tense yet moving scenes. As always in We the Animals, what happens is momentous yet not enough to shatter this family’s tangled bonds.

We the Animals
Directed by Jeremiah Zagar
The Orchard
Opens August 17, Landmark 57 and Angelika Film Center

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“The Meg” Only Triumphs When It Accepts Its Full Silliness

Critics often dismiss today’s blockbusters as looking like video games, but as anyone who actually plays games can attest, that comparison is hopelessly imprecise, just as it is when the designers of the latest dopey PlayStation shooter insist they’ve created something “cinematic.” So let’s be exact here. Jon Turteltaub’s dino-shark thriller goof The Meg is like video-game cutscenes, specifically the ones that wrench away control of the hero — who just a breath ago could conquer anything…and force you to watch passively as the worst happens.

For most of The Meg, the badass played by Jason Statham blithely achieves the impossible. Here’s a dude who rides on the side of history’s largest shark like some alpha male lamprey, jabbing a spear at its eye and not losing his face mask. He descends double-time to the greatest ocean depths humans have ever plunged, ignoring all safety precautions. And he rocks six-pack abs despite having spent the past couple of years drinking to blackout in the remotest bars in Thailand. But between these feats, the plot demands that he sometimes finds himself briefly helpless. The mega-shark is surging toward a submarine, and our man Jonas — that’s the name of Statham’s character, and it might be funny to ask the actor someday if he can remember it — briefly becomes mortal, a hero cut more from life than The Meg. He can’t save everyone, so people die.

What’s never clear is why.

The Meg is a curious hybrid. It’s a studio monster-thriller that’s far funnier than last week’s studio comedy, The Spy Who Dumped Me, often intentionally. More pressingly, it’s a hero-dude adventure movie based on a Michael Crichton–esque paperback techno-thriller, which means we hear more science talk than is strictly necessary, get a tour of a gleaming research facility, and meet a billionaire funder (Rainn Wilson) who just might have ulterior motives. But that’s where it gets tricky. The script, like Steve Alten’s book, is concerned with that key selling point of paperback techno-thrillers: the appearance of plausibility. Of course Jonas couldn’t save everyone off a nuclear sub that’s being rammed by a shark the size of the Chrysler Building.

The problem is that Turteltaub (Rush Hour, the National Treasure films) hasn’t made a techno-thriller. He’s making a Jason Statham fish-punch fantasy, part parody and part thrill ride, a film utterly defiant of even paperback plausibility. The Meg is so full of last-minute saves and over-the-top heroics that when he pragmatically leaves some characters to die, Jonas seems to have forgotten what kind of movie he’s in. It’s like someone’s yanked the controller away from the video-game player, or like one of the Fast and Furious gearheads suddenly quit with the declaration, “Cars can’t do that!”

Turteltaub’s films often suggest a second breed of cutscene, one that’s undeniably “cinematic,” as it’s a staple of many movies, including his National Treasures. This is the scene where the cast has to straight-facedly justify some absurd bit of derring-do that the hero must perform. The hero might pretend to be annoyed by this — often saying something like, “You mean to tell me that I have to blah blah” — but, like the game player or the audience member, is actually eager. Daydreaming about awesome, stupid heroics is why we’re here! The Meg’s finest moments come in the setups: Having unleashed from a sub-basement of the Mariana Trench a megalodon shark with a maw like Mammoth Caverns, the characters all pitch in to come up with reasons to make the heroes do all the stuff shark movies demand. So they have to pretend that it makes sense for Jonas to swim out to within 100 feet of the beast and spear its fin with a tracker. And Li Bingbing’s character, a marine biologist, simply must have a go at the ol’ shark-cage set piece, enticing the monster from inside a phone booth dangled in well-chummed waters. (Note to everyone who passes through this world worrying that white men are being robbed of opportunities to be movie heroes: Statham almost immediately has to dive in to save her.)

Turteltaub is better at the scenes of conceiving cockamamie plans than at the unleashing of cockamamie-ness. He only occasionally suggests the mystery and majesty of his monster and exhibits little feel for suspense. One sequence involving a little girl, light-up shoes, and the glassed-in corridors of an underwater research station suggests that The Meg might have been more. We know the beast is out there, in the dark, and we tense up pleasurably. More often, though, Turteltaub opts to surprise with his shark attacks rather than tease us with the buildup. The beeping of a tracker device speeds up as the beast nears, a pulsing tribute to the Jaws theme, but we’re given little time to soak in anticipation. This comparison is unfair to most summer blockbusters, but since The Meg splices the DNA of Jaws and Jurassic Park, it’s inevitable. During one promising but much-too-brief horror scene, which finds a traitor character stranded on the bloody carcass of a whale in shark- and meg-infested waters, I couldn’t help but dream of how Steven Spielberg would have slowed and shaped the material to put the screws to us.

Turteltaub is too buoyant for horror — the deaths and danger never sink in. Puttering in a Zodiac back from a wrecked boat and the corpses of friends and co-workers, one minor character razzes another about her unkempt hair. There’s one black character, and he’s a big fraidy cat whose inability to swim is played for laughs. The climax involves Statham and Bingbing’s characters zipping around in future-tech subs that look like Star Wars fighter ships while the shark menaces some of the world’s most crowded beaches. The action grows increasingly comic, less Crichton than cartoon. The Meg dispenses with all pretense of techno-thriller plausibility and, in its last gasp, becomes suddenly, cornily confident: It’s a movie about a day-saving superdude fighting a shark that we hope won’t eat that puppy in the water. It’s not all it could be, but it ain’t nothing.

The Meg
Directed by Jon Turteltaub
Warner Bros. Pictures
Opens August 10

 

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1965’s “The 317th Platoon” Is the Movie That Should Have Kept Us Out of Vietnam

France’s hubris keeps warning us, and so does international cinema. Military brass and George W. Bush administration muckety-mucks famously set aside hours in the early 2000s to screen Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers in an effort to grasp the success of insurgents against an occupying force. And now a new restoration of Pierre Schoendoerffer’s 1965 masterpiece The 317th Platoon arrives as a reminder that nothing in the bungled tragedy of Americans in Vietnam should have been a surprise. Surveying the doomed 1954 retreat of French and Laotian soldiers, Schoendoerffer exposes, with a reporter’s eye, the horrors that were and the horrors to come.

His film is a grunts-in-the-boonies travelogue that anticipates not just the experiences of thousands of American soldiers but also most of the American films that, decades later, would grapple with those experiences. It’s in black-and-white, there’s no Creedence on the soundtrack, and its style is spare and observational, but The 317th Platoon tells much the same story as the grandiose American Vietnam films of the 1970s and ’80s. It got to the heart of darkness first — and we were fools to follow.

Here’s a squad outgunned behind enemy lines, trying to get back to a base under siege, freighted with wounded, led by Torrens (Jacques Perrin), a naif right out of the military academy desperate to maintain order. He insists that his men not raid the villages they encounter. His second-in-command is the career soldier Willsdorf (Bruno Crémer), a somewhat cynical bruiser whose backstory is the military history of twentieth-century France. Why they’re fighting isn’t something anyone has time to worry about. Don’t expect anyone to thumbnail France’s ambitions of empire or Ho Chi Minh’s Communist revolution. They’re simply trying to escape a jungle that teems with enemy soldiers who do know what they’re fighting for — and how to win.

Early on, we see Torrens’s squad mostly intact and setting up an ambush. A band of Viet Minh bearing supplies are exposed as they ford a river. Torrens’s soldiers observe them from the brush, waiting until their prey is most vulnerable, and then open fire. Schoendoerffer’s violence is frank but unsensational, often shown from the vantage of the soldier perpetrating it: The Viet Minh, in silhouette in the shooters’ crosshairs, collapse into the water, the gunshots quick cracks rather than the fireworking hell of Apocalypse Now. The most suspenseful sequences involve peering through binoculars at the tree line, searching for a shooter. Later, the surviving members of Torrens’s platoon will have to cross a river themselves, and both they and the audience wince in anticipation of the inevitable attack.

Soon the 317th is split up, burdened by men dying on bamboo stretchers, cut off from safety. Schoendoerffer and crew shot in Cambodia, and the jungle presses in on most scenes, the actors hunkered down in weeds and creek beds, the nights deeply black and nothing more terrifying than a sudden quiet. (New Wave lion Raoul Coutard served as director of photography; like Schoendoerffer, he was a veteran of what was known as the First Indochina War.) Drugs help, morphine and opium, as does the occasional bottle of wine (stolen from a village) or Pernod (shattered in a supply drop). The narcotic haze never infects the clear-eyed filmmaking, but we see some soldiers lose focus, stop caring whether they make it back. It’s clear early on that the usual war movie heroism is out of place here: There’s no bridge to blow up, no day to save, no cause worth dying for. The heroism of these men, the colonizing French and the local anti-Communist Laotians, is in perseverance and their dedication to each other.

Later films about this war and subsequent ones would be more frank about civilian casualties, about what happens when scared and desperate soldiers meet scared and desperate villagers. But in the offhand tenderness its men exhibit toward each other, The 317th Platoon established a model that persists today even in Hollywood movies, the ones that celebrate the warriors while remaining politely ambivalent about the wars.

The 317th Platoon
Written and directed by Pierre Schoendoerffer  
Rialto Pictures
Opens August 10, Metrograph 

 

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