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Can Kid Scientists Save the World? “Inventing Tomorrow” Follows Some Who Just Might

Laura Nix’s documentary Inventing Tomorrow begins like a police procedural: A young investigator snaps on rubber gloves and grimly assesses what could be a crime scene. In a way, it is — two high school girls in Bangka, Indonesia, are adamant that tin mining, spurred by the manufacture of devices like smartphones and computers in high demand the world over, is polluting the sea around their island home.

They take water samples, grill the miners about their practices, and invent a filter that could mitigate their toxic side effects, which earns them a spot at the massive Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles.

Nix spotlights four such eco-conscious projects — the others hail from Hawaii, India, and Mexico — and the teenagers behind them. Though her film shares a lot with the hit student-achievement doc Spellbound, her focus on the fair somewhat blunts her impact. We’re privy to the students’ backgrounds and get a tiny glimpse into their futures, but the film skims a lot in favor of showcasing the ISEF gathering.

Still, as in the spelling-bee doc, these are moving stories of nerdy children, kids who are pragmatic about the forward march of industry yet believe societies can, and must, find cleaner ways to advance. It’s noteworthy that so many are from outside the U.S., which has downgraded science and ecological care to a pitiful degree. Each of them could become leaders in science, government, or industry, and, in fact, it would be a crime if they all don’t.

Inventing Tomorrow
Directed by Laura Nix
Opens August 31, IFC Center

 

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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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“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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Wake Up Sheeple, “Calling All Earthlings” Is Calling for You

There isn’t much marijuana use in Jonathan Berman’s documentary Calling All Earthlings, but its elliptical, ramshackle structure could make one question the merits of legalization. The film skirts the edges of its story like a garrulous pothead, its interviews never quite getting to the point.

It might help to know a little about the subject going in: In 1953, aviation engineer George Van Tassel claimed he had been visited by an alien who shared plans for the Integratron, a four-story cylindrical machine that would rejuvenate human cells and provide limitless free energy. Van Tassel purported to channel messages from Venus and hosted desert UFO conferences to fund the Integratron’s construction near the edge of an Air Force base, which brought him to the attention of the FBI. Just as the machine was nearing completion, the story goes, Van Tassel (mysteriously?) died.

Calling All Earthlings invites us to gawk at the crackpots in his wake, but delights in adding fuel to their conspiratorial fire. A busybody’s letters to the FBI, for instance, are presented with fast-cut close-ups of typewritten words, lending them a Beautiful Mind–style fervor. Van Tassel himself is the frustrating hole at the center; his actual channelings and conferences are given short shrift in favor of his followers’ obsessions.

Calling All Earthlings
Directed by Jonathan Berman
Carpe Stella Productions
Now playing, Maylses Cinema

 

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“93Queen” Follows the Creation of an All-Female Hasidic EMT Service

93Queen joins the long and expanding list of bad documentaries covering a fantastic subject. The focus is Rachel “Ruchie” Freier, a determined, brilliant, and righteous Hasidic woman in Borough Park, Brooklyn, actively reforming that community’s retrograde attitudes toward women. Her initial goal is to create an all-female volunteer EMT service. Ultra-orthodox women are so sheltered that it’s anathema to be in a state of undress with any man other than a husband, and, as such, many are hesitant to call the local all-male Hatzolah service. Ruchie’s obvious work-around won’t do anything to change a culture that forbids even an extramarital handshake (though does offer dispensation in times of medical crisis), but anything that keeps women from their duties in the kitchen or bedroom is, naturally, not kosher to the strictest rabbis.

Watching Ruchie rally her troops and overcome Hatzolah’s mafioso-like scare tactics is engaging, but the dramatic moments feel staged and are undercut with obvious late inserts. Ruchie is a firebrand (and a culture where four children is considered a “small family” is fascinating), but we’re left with many questions unanswered, including obvious ones like, “Who is funding this program, anyway?” 93Queen (which refers to the group’s city-designated radio signal) takes a sharp turn at the end to follow Ruchie’s campaign to become a civil court judge. Considering how the narrative presents her as local pariah, it’s quite the head-scratcher when she wins. So while her acceptance speech as the first Hasidic woman to hold any elected office might be moving, much of the movie still feels like a false alarm.

93Queen
Directed by Paula Eiselt

Abramorama
Opens July 25, IFC Center

 

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Sundance: Two Startling Documentaries Question the Limits of Our Vision

It’s not every day that you witness a new cinematic language being born, but watching RaMell Ross’s evocatively titled documentary Hale County, This Morning, This Evening qualifies. The director, a photographer and teacher who was coaching basketball in the middle of the Black Belt region of the American South, knew the subjects of his documentary for several years before deciding to create a film around them. The finished work, a half decade in the making, is informed by his deep familiarity with its characters, which might be one reason why he has the confidence to abandon traditional narrative structures and strike out on his own lyrical path.

Throughout Hale County, Ross fixes his camera on quotidian moments, fragments of scenes. A woman tapping a flyswatter against her knee. A girl casually braiding her hair. A toddler running back and forth across a small living room. A droplet of sweat falling off a ball player. The shadow of a football throw. This kind of cutaway might provide some lively background atmosphere in a typical film, but for Ross this is the foreground, even as he starts to focus on his more “traditional” subjects: Quincy and Daniel, African-American teens living in a quiet Alabama town. Quincy works at the catfish plant, supporting a young family. Daniel has dreams of leaving and making a life for himself; he sees school as a way out, and basketball as a way through school. When we see him working on his outside shot — with Ross keeping the camera so tight that we mostly just see the boy’s shoulders — we’re not just watching a young athlete practicing, we’re watching someone in the midst of an existential task.

By sticking to his impressionistic perspective, by fracturing his narrative, Ross achieves something genuinely poetic — a film whose very lightness is the key to its depth. Hale County traverses years, encompasses tragedy and beauty, all in just 78 minutes. His is an empathetic camera, focusing on the kinds of details that pull us into this world, with a photographer’s eye for taking everyday moments and finding transcendence in them.

But there’s something more significant going on here. Occasionally, the text of cryptic little phrases and questions flash briefly across the screen. The one that really grabbed me asks, “How do you not frame someone?” That might sound gnomic, but it lies at the heart of Ross’s achievement. By fragmenting our point-of-view, he draws our attention to what we can’t know. All too often, these longitudinal documentaries — movies that chart people’s lives over multiple years — have a kind of totalizing ambition. They pretend to novelistic thoroughness. But can a mere film contain and explain an entire human life? (And let’s not forget, those impressively long, years-in-the-making documentaries often are made by white filmmakers about black subjects.) Ross understands that it can’t, and he’s found a way to express that through form. He immerses us in this world, but then lets the mystery be.

“Minding the Gap”

Ross represents a director halfway between outsider and secret-sharer – a teacher who came from elsewhere and laid down roots in this community. By contrast, Bing Liu, the director of Minding the Gap, is one of the subjects of his own documentary. Similarly longitudinal in its ambitions, Liu’s film follows the lives of three close friends, all skaters in the depressed Rust Belt town of Rockford, Illinois, who’ve known each other since they were little kids. We see their early years in rough glimpses – attempting skate tricks, goofing around, breaking their boards in both playfulness and rage. They’re a surprisingly diverse trio: Zack is the floppy-haired, charming pothead anarchist; Keire is African American, with a bubbly, boyish personality; Bing is a quiet, Chinese-American introvert. None have good relationships with their families; indeed, they say early on that they formed their own family together – “to look out for each other, because no one else was looking out for us.”

Like Hale County, Minding the Gap focuses on expressive moments and emotional movements rather than narrative arcs. The film is filled with lengthy, sensuous skateboarding scenes, which feel meditative, therapeutic; we sense that these kids skated not because it was fun, but because it helped them to survive.

But as the years pass, the film begins to question some of the trio’s own notions of self-knowledge. Each of their families has suffered from some form of domestic abuse – from casual beatings to far more sinister acts. And none of the boys has ever really reckoned with this dark reality in their lives. They have escaped through skating and friendship – but that kind of avoidance merely kicks the can down the road. Zack winds up with his own family early on in life, and we learn that he might be reenacting some of the same things that happened to him. As they become men, and as their lives diverge, the trio begin to ask how well they really know each other, and themselves.

This sense of questioning becomes part of the aesthetic of the film. As both subject and filmmaker, Bing is often behind the camera, but he’s also a participant in much of the movie: The people onscreen know him and trust him, and there’s a genuine intimacy to their interactions. But eventually, he trains the camera on his own life, as he decides to delve into his family’s past and the abuse he suffered. A visit back home and an interview with his mother make for incredibly powerful scenes, but they also reveal the limitations of our knowledge and vision. Minding the Gap, like Hale County This Morning, This Evening, is the work of a filmmaker willing to acknowledge that sometimes, seeing better, seeing differently, is more important than understanding.