Award-winning husband-and-wife documentarians D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus have been collaborating for forty-five years, working on films about such subjects as Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign (The War Room), Carol Burnett (Moon over Broadway), soul music (Only the Strong Survive), pastry chefs (Kings of Pastry), and Elaine Stritch (Elaine Stritch at Liberty). For their latest film, Unlocking the Cage, they spent three years following animal rights lawyer Steven M. Wise, the president and founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project, as he sought to establish “personhood” for several chimpanzees in order to free them from their caged existence and move them to more acceptable animal sanctuaries. Wise and his team, Natalie Prosin and attorneys Elizabeth “Liddy” Stein and Monica Miller, scour the internet searching for chimpanzees to represent as well as sanctuaries where the animals can be released. (The Nonhuman Rights Project focuses on great apes, elephants, and such cetaceans as dolphins and whales because of their autonomy, intelligence, and emotional capacity.) The concept is fascinating, and the film hits its high points when Pennebaker and Hegedus show some of the chimpanzees interacting with humans in compelling ways, watching television or figuring something out on a computer. Unfortunately, far too much of Unlocking the Cage deals with often murky legal discussions and courtroom arguments that drag on and on.
While some people believe the animals must be freed, others think it’s a slippery slope and that the species are already protected by animal welfare laws. Also, although Wise certainly means well, he is so obsessed with finding clients (including Merlin, Kiko, Hercules, Leo, and Tommy) and changing their legal status via the writ of Habeas Corpus that he doesn’t necessarily fully consider the animals’ current situations and relationships with their owners, instead assuming that what he wants for the chimpanzees is the only option, which doesn’t always appear to be the case. Wise, who was inspired by Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, meets with primatologists, visits zoos and sanctuaries, gives talks and lectures, is interviewed by the media, and makes his stand in court, and while he raises some genuinely important questions, the answers are too often bogged down in legalese and repetition. A presentation of Pennebaker Hegedus Films, First Run Features, and HBO Documentary Films, Unlocking the Cage opens at Film Forum on May 25, with Hegedus, Pennebaker, and Wise on hand for Q&As following the 7:00 shows on May 25, 26, and 27 and the 4:40 show on May 28.
Who: Cally Spooner
What: Performance lecture
Where: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 235 Bowery at Prince St., 212-219-1222
When: Wednesday, May 25, $15, 7:00
Why: In her New Museum Lobby Gallery installation “On False Tears and Outsourcing,” her first solo institutional presentation in the United States, British multidisciplinary artist Cally Spooner explores issues of communication, power, and the human body, inspired by the scene in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in which Emma receives a farewell letter from Rodolphe signed with a fake tear. The site-specific piece is choreographed with and performed by Holly Curran, Maja Ho, Emily McDaniel, Ashton Muniz, José Rivera Jr., Maggie Segale, and Jennifer Tchiakpe in different configurations. Spooner, who has previously staged “He’s in a Great Place! (A film trailer for And You Were Wonderful, On Stage)” at the Tate Modern, “And You Were Wonderful, On Stage” at the National Academy, and “It’s About You” on the High Line, will be at the New Museum on May 25 to deliver a performance lecture in conjunction with the installation.
Before word of mouth, before the reviews, before the public sees the cast and sets and hears the dialogue and music, a Broadway show attempts to define itself — and sell tickets — by establishing a look, a unique brand, via posters, billboards, and advertisements. For the last twenty years, SpotCo, originally known as Spot Design, has been at the forefront of this business, working on campaigns for more than three hundred clients, including eight Pulitzer Prize winners and the last eight winners of the Tony for Best Musical. The company’s history is celebrated in the new coffee-table book On Broadway: From Rent to Revolution (Rizzoli, April 2016, $45), which explores SpotCo’s branding of such shows as Rent, Chicago, The Vagina Monologues, Doubt, Avenue Q, Hair, Once, Kinky Boots, Fun Home, and Hamilton. “What separates SpotCo’s oeuvre from what has come before and makes it so astounding is that as a whole it has no recognizable visual style, in a business that was long thought to rely on exactly that, no matter how hackneyed and clichéd,” author and graphic designer extraordinaire Chip Kidd writes in his foreword. “The only thing that unites them all is an unwavering sense of intelligence and the apparent belief that their audience is comprised of people who can think, intuit, and take a chance on something they haven’t quite experienced before.” The book also features text by SpotCo founder Drew Hodges and producers, composers, illustrators, playwrights, artistic directors, photographers, and actors (Harvey Fierstein, Cherry Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Patrick Stewart, Sting) detailing the various campaigns, in addition to an introduction by former company maid David Sedaris. On May 23, the Rizzoli Bookstore will host the annual Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS charity event while also celebrating On Broadway: From Rent to Revolution; the evening will include a red carpet entrance for numerous stars of the Great White Way, an auction of original art, and more.
Who: Wong Kar Wai, La Frances Hui
What: Modern Mondays
Where: MoMA Film, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves., 212-708-9400
When: Monday, May 23, $8-$12, 7:30
Why: “Our distant comradeship went on for twenty years, all of them blessedly unconstrained by the inhibiting, red-eyed presence of a tape recorder. We never did a proper interview, much less anything so large as a book,” pop-culture and film critic John Powers recently wrote in his Vogue essay “How to Write a Book with Wong Kar Wai,” continuing, “As I flew home to L.A., I was experiencing what I’d long heard about working on one of Wong’s long-gestating films: You spend your time waiting and waiting, dependent on his decisions, wondering if there’s any end in sight.” They were trying to finish what would become WKW: The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai (Rizzoli, April 2016, $65) in time for the opening of the Met Fifth Avenue’s exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass,” for which Wong was serving as artistic director. Well, they made it, and on May 23, Wong, the writer-director of such cutting-edge works as Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Happy Together, and the lush In the Mood for Love, will be at MoMA for a Modern Mondays presentation including film clips, a conversation with MoMA Department of Film associate curator La Frances Hui, and a book signing. “China: Through the Looking Glass” continues in the Met’s Chinese Galleries and Anna Wintour Costume Center through September 7.
Opera in the Bronx? On May 26, as part of its 125th anniversary, the New York Botanical Garden will offer a sneak peek at this summer’s Glimmerglass Festival at a special one-night-only program. The evening begins at 6:00 with a viewing of the gallery section of the new exhibition “Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas,” which features gardens curated by Francisca Coelho in the style of works by Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, and other artists, along with Impressionist paintings and sculptures. At 7:00 in Ross Hall, soprano Alison King, mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams, tenor Chaz’men Williams-Ali, baritone Johnathan McCullough, and pianist Kevin Miller will perform excerpts from a new Belle Époque production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, Gioachino Rossini and Giovanni Gherardini’s The Thieving Magpie, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd, and Robert Ward’s Pulitzer Prize-winning adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, as well as past favorites, presented by Glimmerglass artistic and general director Francesca Zambello and the Young Artists Program. Following the performance, ticket holders are invited to the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory to see the garden part of the Impressionism exhibition. The Glimmerglass Festival takes place July 8 to August 27 in Cooperstown and also includes Laura Karpman and Kelley Rourke’s new Youth Opera: Wilde Tales, discussions with New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman and journalist Jeffrey Toobin on The Crucible, Sondheim on Sweeney Todd, and Supreme Court Justice and opera lover Ruth Bader Ginsburg in addition to master classes, lounges, preview brunches, and more.
Museum of the Moving Image, 35th Ave. at 36th St.
Kaufman Astoria Studios backlot, 36th St. between 34th & 35th Aves.
Sunday, May 22, free, 11:00 am - 5:00 pm
New York on Location, the Museum of the Moving Image’s annual street fair and celebration, will take place on May 22, featuring a full day of movie-related activities. A joint venture of the museum, Theatrical Teamsters Local 817, I.A.T.S.E. Local 52, and Kaufman Astoria Studios, the festivities include car, fire, and high-fall stunts, weather effects, hair and makeup demonstrations, face painting and hair extensions, and more. Visitors can also go inside twenty working trailers and trucks that come directly from shoots and speak with professionals about their jobs, in addition to using a few of their bathrooms. Even some of the food that is available for purchase will be set up in movie-catering fashion. “The film and television industry employs thousands of New Yorkers every year, from electricians to carpenters to makeup artists. And while we love seeing the magic that appears on screen, few people outside the industry can really appreciate all the work that goes into creating that magic,” Kaufman Astoria Studios president and CEO Hal Rosenbluth said in a statement. “New York on Location is a wonderful way for families and anyone interested in movies and TV shows to experience what goes on behind-the-scenes and meet the people who work in the industry.” As a bonus, the museum will be open for free as well, so be sure to check out such exhibitions as “Behind the Screen,” “Arcade Classics: Video Games from the Collection,” “The World of Anomalisa,” “To the Moon and Beyond: Graphic Films and the Inception of 2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Mutant Leftovers,” and “Computer Films of the 1960s.”
WEINER (Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg, 2016)
IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St., 212-924-7771
Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway between 62nd & 63rd Sts., 212-757-2280
Opens Friday, May 20
Near the end of Weiner, one of the most revealing and entertaining documentaries about a political figure you’re ever likely to see, one of the directors, Josh Kriegman, asks subject extraordinaire Anthony Weiner, “Why have you let me film this?” It’s a great question, and one that can be inquired of Weiner’s wife as well, Huma Abedin, who stands alongside her scandal-ridden husband nearly every step of the way. In May 2011, during his seventh term as a fierce, fiery congressman representing parts of Brooklyn and Queens, Weiner was forced to resign in disgrace after it was discovered that he had sent lewd pictures of himself to several women over a public social media account while lying about it as well. Just two years later, the Brooklyn-born Weiner decided to get back in the game, running for mayor of New York City. Kriegman, who was a senior aide to Weiner in 2004-5 and his New York chief of staff in 2005-6, thought the comeback campaign would make a fascinating story, and Weiner agreed, giving him virtually unlimited access to his family and staffers. Initially, everything is going better than expected: Weiner is leading in the polls and getting his message across. But then the sexting scandal rises up again, and it all starts falling apart. Weiner tries hard to fight the good fight, concentrating on communicating his political platform, but the media only wants to ask him and his brave wife about the sexting, even when it is clear that the people of New York City prefer to talk about the issues. “I guess the punch line is true about me. I did the things . . . but I did a lot of other things too,” Weiner acknowledges. Of course, maybe Weiner never really had a fair chance. The movie begins with a telling quote from Marshall McLuhan: “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.”
PBS and MTV veterans Kriegman and codirector Elyse Steinberg amassed more than four hundred hours of footage for their feature debut, and very rarely does Weiner or Abedin shut them out, even when things appear to hit rock bottom. Kriegman focuses his camera on Weiner, who doesn’t flinch as he considers all his options and, all too often, takes the wrong path, whether it’s getting angry with a patron in a Jewish deli or arguing with Lawrence O’Donnell on a videolink interview. Weiner continually performs self-defeating acts that Abedin, a longtime Hillary Clinton supporter who is now vice chairwoman of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s campaign, gracefully and painfully points out to him, but she sticks with her husband and his campaign to the bitter end. Kriegman and Steinberg show Weiner hanging out at home, walking around barefoot, and playing with son Jordan, who was born in December 2011. But it’s truly heartbreaking when the directors zero in on Abedin’s forlorn face as the scandal grows and grows and the media has a field day with it. Weiner is seamlessly edited by Eli Despres (Blackfish, Red Army), who keeps the tension high even when we know what is coming, as the narrative plays out like a unique kind of political thriller. It’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen, to stop watching Weiner and Abedin as they have to deal with his dirty laundry in public. In addition to allowing Kriegman and Steinberg to follow him everywhere, the usually charismatic Weiner is decidedly dour as he sits down for a candid wraparound interview with the filmmakers. “Shit. This is the worst. This is the worst. Doing a documentary on my scandal,” Weiner opines at one point, displaying a rare moment of genuine regret as opposed to his usual hubris. But the film, which makes no judgments — and which Weiner and Abedin have refused to see so far — is as much about the relationship between media and politics as it is about one specific politician who made some personal mistakes, and it does not bode well for our future. Will Weiner ever be able to stage another comeback? He’s a determined guy, almost to the point of obsession, with a deep desire to help the people of New York City and the country, but then there’s that name, and the photos he posted, and the strange faces that he makes, so a third chance might just be one too many. A most human drama that won the U.S. Grand Jury Documentary Prize at Sundance, the extraordinary Weiner opens at Lincoln Plaza and the IFC Center on May 20, with the filmmakers at IFC for Q&As following the 8:00 show on Friday night and the 7:15 and 8:00 shows on Saturday.