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Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

In a truly unique music documentary, Israeli filmmaker Ido Haar (9 STAR HOTEL, ENLISTMENT DAYS) partnered with musician and composer Kutiman (real name: Ophir Kutiel), whose specialty is finding a cappella videos on YouTube and enlisting musicians from all over the world to help build an arrangement around the clip without the singer knowing about it until it was complete. All of the submitted musical tracks are done via YouTube as well, and results are often quite extraordinary. PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW is about the intersection of Kutiman’s work with that of a total stranger, a New Orleans resident named Samantha Montgomery, who performs (often to empty clubs on open-mic nights) under the name Princess Shaw.

Montgomery is no stranger to capturing her own life via her cell phone. She films short videos (for whom, we don’t really know) documenting her day-to-day life as a healthcare provider in an old age home, but finds ways to write often heartbreaking songs that she sings with her raw, soulful voice. I’m not sure what the pretense was that brought her and director Haar together (he likely told her this was a doc about YouTube stars), but establishing what a tough life she has makes the moment when she first hears Kutiman’s finished version of one of her songs that much more powerful.

If the story ended there, PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW was still be worthy of viewing, but the song becomes such a YouTube sensation that Kutiman invites Princess to Tel Aviv to perform the song—and others he’s arranged that she doesn’t even know about—in a massive concert. Tracking her journey to Tel Aviv, meeting Kutiman for the first time in person, and watching her come alive in rehearsals and on stage is mesmerizing. It doesn’t take much for her inner star to surface, but she never forgets to be kind and gracious about the opportunity afforded her.

PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW is pure uplift. Tears will likely be shed, both due to the emotional content of her songs and the joyful way that her life has paid off. It’s also a great portrait of two artists who seemed destined to work together, despite coming from vastly different worlds. The direction is simple yet completely effective, and the impact is substantial and near perfection. There is an inherent power in watching someone’s dreams come true, and PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW knows that and proves that.

One of the most celebrated Middle Eastern filmmakers currently working is two-time Oscar nominee Hany Abu-Assad (OMAR, PARADISE NOW) and his latest work is also his most accessible. THE IDOL is the true story of Mohammed Assaf, living in war-torn Gaza, who was a gifted singer from a very young age. He formed a band with his defiant sister and two friends, and immediately began getting work playing weddings at a time when girls weren’t allowed to play instruments (the sister disguised herself as a boy and hid behind stage props). But when tragedy strikes the Assaf family, Mohammed gave up singing out of pure grief, until many years later when he runs into one of his childhood friends who encourages him to sing again.

In the time between his childhood and more modern times, the Gaza landscape has changed considerably, and to have any desire to play in the Cairo Opera House seemed indulgent at best. But after getting an audition on “Arab Idol” (the region’s version of “American Idol”), Mohammad allows himself to dream of becoming a great singer once again. There are moments in THE IDOL that feel a little forced and fictionalized, even if they aren’t, especially when Mohammad must use fake ID papers to get across the border to Egypt, using his voice as the true means of convincing the border guards to let him pass.

The film’s messages about those in Gaza being oppressed by Israel are both weirdly unspoken but still very much a part of Mohammad’s story. His moving up through the ranks of “Idol” was said to give voice to the voiceless in his country. But there are almost no direct mentions of the conflict, just shots of building after building absolutely leveled after years of instability. It seems odd that the visuals are clearly meant to be so powerful, yet any direct criticism of the state of affairs between the two cultures is unspoken. If such a message was more overt, The Idol might not be playing in America at all.

As it stands, THE IDOL is a bittersweet reminder of how the simplest thing can motivate and inspire so many people. In many ways, Mohammad became a reluctant celebrity, because he felt uncomfortable having the pressure of an entire people on his shoulders. Those personal aspects to his story ring more true and have more far-reaching meaning than him sneaking past checkpoints. I wish there had been more such moments.

The seemingly light-hearted documentary OLDER THAN IRELAND features a series of interviews with Irish centenarians who have been alive at least as long as the Republic of Ireland itself (2016 marks the 100-year anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916 that led eventually to Irish independence). Filmmaker Alex Fegan (THE IRISH PUB) has collected an absolutely glorious group of folks for his subjects who are representative of the living, breathing history of the nation and have the stories to prove it.

Fegan starts out small, asking about childhood memories and how their parents raised them, but before long the questions turn to subjects like Bloody Sunday, British military occupation, and the Irish Republican Army (at least one of the subjects actually met Michael Collins when he was a youngster). As the film goes on, we begin to see the unique personalities creep into their answers. We discover which were raised and are still deeply religious, while other couldn’t give a feck about the church. The language is colorful (and thankfully subtitled), and those interviewed managed to lay out a fairly precise portrait of Ireland across the decades (their attitudes about young people today are none too favorable).

Not surprisingly, the most moving material here is when the interviewees are asked about the loves of their lives and the great losses as well. Many of them express a sense of loneliness, since everyone they’ve known is gone, and they have done all they’ve wanted to do with their lives. And while this may sound a bit maudlin, it’s actually quite lovely to see people who aren’t afraid of death, since many of them hope it will reunite them with those they’ve lost. But when you get them talking about their first kiss or even a censored version of their sexual discovery, all bets are off, and OLDER THAN IRELAND becomes an absolute joy.

Clocking in at under 80 minutes, the doc is a straight-forward approach to a weighty subject—the history of an impassioned people. It’s also a powerful reminder that sometimes the best stories can be told with voices and faces. OLDER THAN IRELAND is a complete emotional and historical journey in an elegant and streamlined package.

This is a very silly film, which is not necessarily the reason it doesn’t quite work. Silly can be enjoyable, but it can also be pointless. And I’m still racking my brain trying to figure out what the point of PUERTO RICANS IN PARIS is supposed to be. Luis (Luis Guzman) and Eddie (Edgar Garcia) are two NYPD detectives who specialize in busting those who sell and manufacture knockoffs of designer clothes and accessories (I guess someone has to do it).

They’re actually rather good at their job, and as something of a reward, a French clothing CEO pays to bring the pair to Paris to stop the sale of a one-of-a-kind handbag from designer Colette (Alice Taglioni), whose prototype for her highly anticipated bag has been stolen and is being held for ransom. The company hires the detectives to find out who the bag-napper really is, after narrowing the list of suspects to a few close associates. So these two totally blend in in Paris and work undercover to find the thief.

PUERTO RICANS IN PARIS establishes the only character traits we need to know about these two men. Luis is a sexist pig and relationship phobic, but he’s met a great woman (Rosario Dawson) and is being tempted to actually commit. Eddie is married (to Rosie Perez) with many children, but their relationship is troubled because he’s so busy with work that he keeps forgetting to appreciate her. When the two get to Paris, Luis is the one who keeps striking out with the ladies, while the more subdued Eddie seems to be getting some attention, including forming a close friendship with Colette. He’s not interested in straying, but that doesn’t mean Colette isn’t going to tempt him.

The film is the first feature from Ian Edelman (who co-wrote with Neel Shah), creator of “How to Make It in America,” and it’s a bit all over the place. It’s not especially funny, Luis’s brutish behavior is supposed to be amusing, but it’s mainly just gross. Eddie is certainly the more interesting of the two characters, but he spends so much time exploring the city that you wonder why they aren’t devoting all their time to the case they’ll be paid handsomely for if they solve it. The case itself is really just an excuse to bring the boys to this sophisticated city, so when the story actually has to veer back into the big mystery, things get rather dull.

While watching PUERTO RICANS IN PARIS, I don’t think I ever stopped shaking my head wondering what the greater meaning was of all the squabbling between the men, the moronic undercover stings they set up, and all the partying and flirting. If the point was to appreciate their women more, the film might have made this clearer by actually writing decent roles for these two actresses, because the way that they’re portrayed in the film is borderline offensive. As a guy who once said that every movie would be better with a little Guzman in it, this film proves that there are some holes in my theory—ones at least as big as those in this story.

In many ways, the new documentary from the legendary team of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (THE WAR ROOM, ELAINE STRITCH AT LIBERTY, KINGS OF PASTRY) is an exercise in converting its audience, which I normally find deplorable. But in the case of UNLOCKING THE CAGE, what the filmmakers are attempting to do (whether they would admit it or not) is convince you that certain high-functioning animals should be considered legal persons so that they may share certain rights that biological human beings do. Their means of making this argument is Steven Wise, an animal rights lawyer who has brought cases on behalf of certain animals (in these cases, they were chimpanzees being held as roadside zoo attractions in sometimes deplorable conditions). His thinking is simply that by calling them people (as in “not property”), they would qualify under habeas corpus to not be held without cause and could be taken to sanctuaries to live out their lives in more natural conditions.

We see Wise and his small army of lawyers both explain and argue to such a degree and so convincingly that it’s likely only a matter of time before your brain simply slips into the same mode as theirs about these bigger-brained animals (which also include elephants and certain water-based mammals like dolphins, orcas, etc.). Over the course of many months, not only does Wise move through the judicial system, waiting for just one open-minded judge to possibly grant his clients habeas corpus, but he goes on just about every talkshow that will have him explaining his position. As a result, the media coverage also shifts, from initially treating him like a crackpot to looking at the real ramifications if he succeeds. If a corporation can be considered a person in certain circumstances, why not an animal who knows when it’s being abused and/or held captive.

There are victories and failures along the way, and Hededus and Pennebaker use their fly-on-the-wall tactics to capture every strategy meeting and adjustment in Wise’s plan. Almost without realizing it, the film’s tone goes from vaguely whimsical to more serious as the movement picks up steam and begins to be taken seriously. The detail-oriented nature of the judicial process, coupled with the fact that Wise and his people are paving new ground—one where precedent does not exist—is all quite maddening at times. But Wise (mostly) keeps his cool and stays the course in a way only a person of absolute conviction and certainty can. UNLOCKING THE CAGE is strangely inspirational and a deeply rewarding watch, no matter what side of this issue you fall.

-- Steve Prokopy
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