Co-directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker have a knack for knowing how to make a documentary that finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally and intellectually. The War Room and Kings of Pastry displayed their skills, and the same can be said for their new doc Unlocking the Cage. They follow an animal rights lawyer/activist Steven Wise who runs the Nonhuman Rights Project as he battles against the U.S. court system to change the laws of Habeas Corpus so that it would include certain animals with higher intelligence like chimps, dolphins and elephants. He argues and attempts to prove that chimps should be considered as "persons" with liberties and rights just like human beings based on their cognitive skills. If they were to be considered "persons" and including under the Habeas Corpus law, it would be against the law to imprison them. It's riveting to watch Wise, an underdog, stand his ground against the U.S. courts while remaining persistent in spite of some setbacks along the way. The bureaucracies of justice system (which would more accurately be called the injustice system) doesn't make it easy at all for Wise, but, just like with anything that leads to change, hardship must come along with it. Footage of chimps showing their cognitive skills are quite fascinating and moving. Unless you're made out of stone and have no compassion or humanity, you'll find yourself rooting for the chimps. It's worth mention that Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker avoid the use of bombarding the audience with talking heads or facts & figures that would've made the doc rather dry. Nor do they paint the issue of Nonhuman rights as a one-sided, black-and-white issue. Just like in a coin there are more than 2 sides (there's the sides, the ridges, the corners etc...), so there's plenty of gray area to be found here. Ultimately, Unlocking the Cage is a thoroughly captivating, alarming, gripping and poignant doc that would make for an interesting double feature with the powerful and provocative doc, Project Nim. It opens Wednesday, May 25th at Film Forum via First Run Features/HBO Documentary Films.
Alice Through the Looking Glass
Alice (Mia Wasikowska), a ship's captain, returns to her London home to deal with foreclosure issues with the help of her mother (Lindsay Duncan). Those issues, though, are nothing compared to what the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) goes through. He's dying from depression because he believes his family had died years ago, so it's up to Alice to travel back in time to try to save his family before their death. In order to time-travel, she must find the Chronosphere that belongs to Time (Sacha Baron Cohen). Meanwhile, her friends in Wonderland, White Queen (Anne Hathaway) the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Chesire Cat (Stephen Fry), Tweedledum and Tweetledee (Matt Lucas), eagerly await for Alice to save the Mad Hatter. Alice's nemesis, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), tries to stop her from succeeding in her mission.
Alice Through the Looking Glass lacks a compelling narrative and doesn't quite earn its emotions, but it compensates for that with its sumptuous and dazzling visuals as well captivating performances and campiness. Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are particularly engaging because their characters are somewhat campy and quirky in an amusing sort of way, but it's hard to take them seriously or care about them for that matter. The backstory involving the Mad Hatter's childhood trauma isn't fleshed out convincingly or poignantly; it seems like it's just there merely as a rushed plot device. Even the drama that takes place at Alice's home isn't as much of an emotional hook as it strives to be. The screenplay by Linda Woolverton does have a few witty or tongue-in-cheek lines of dialogue, but they're far and few between.
Whenever you start to become disengaged by the plot, the there's always the CGI, costume and set designs which provide some eye candy. If only there were some ear or heart or soul candy to go along with it, but it's better than nothing. Sometimes, style becomes substance and can make a shallow experience more fun rather than tedious. Had the running time exceeded 2 hours instead of remaining at the current 1 hour and 50 minutes, it would have been exhausting and surely overstayed its welcome. You're better of watching Alice Through the Looking Glass on the big screen so that you can get swept away by its visuals; on the small screen, your enjoyment of the film on an aesthetical level would be vastly diminished.
12-year-old Adar (Shira Haas) comes from a dysfunctional family. Her mother, Alma (Kerem Mor), gives her too much freedom without enough discipline which is evident when she reacts unlike a good parent would when told by a school teacher her daughter's grades are slipping and that she might be expelled. Alma's boyfriend, Michael (Ori Pfeffer) plays roleplaying games with Adar that have sexual, creepy undertones. Nor does Alma mind that Adar sleeps in bed with her and Michael. The dynamics of their relationships evolve once Adar meets her doppelganger, Alan (Adar Zohar-Hanetz), and persuades her mother to let him stay over for a while.
The screenplay by writer/director Tali Shalom-Ezer is honest, tender and, at times, unpredictable. Shalom-Ezer avoids sugar-coating this coming-of-age drama or including any schmaltz. Princess isn't quite as engrossing and organic as the classic Boyhood, but it comes very close. Once Alan shows up, the psychological suspense waxes gradually until a very surprising ending that's satisfying without being cliched or over-the-top, although Shalom-Ezer does play around with how audiences are conditioned to expect the worst things to happen just like Linklater toyed around with the audience's expectations in Boyhood when Mason and his friends were throwing a saw blade, and when Mason's stepdad was driving erradically while drunk. In one case, something bad does happen in Princess just as you feared, but in another, it doesn't quite happen in the way that you expected (which won't be spoiled here). The film's tone feels somewhat reminiscent Todd Solondz film more often than not although with less comedy and shock value, and more humanism.
It's quite refreshing to watch a character-driven film with flawed characters who have inner lives rather than watching charicatures like you'd find in Hollywood films. Adar, Alma, Michael and Alan each have a lot of growing up to do in their own ways, and are going through innate struggles. Fortunately, the convincingly moving and natural performances by everyone, especially Shira Hass who gives a bravura performance, further enrich and hook you emotionally into this absorbing, provocative and refreshingly unHollywood drama from start to finish.