As the Chicago International Film Festival heads into its second (and final) weekend, there’s still plenty worth exploring at cinemas across the city. From high-profile early screenings of films like Spencer and Julia to more niche fare like Phil Tippett’s Mad God and the latest from Kartemquin Films, a moving story of a pianist who defied the odds. The festival will also feature a Best Of screening slate on Sunday, October 24, where you’ll get a second chance to see some of the most acclaimed films before this year’s edition wraps for good. Our take on what to look forward to this weekend is right here.
Bad Luck Banging or Looney Porn
Divided into three distinct chapters, with three possible conclusions tagged on at the end, this Romanian feature from director Radu Jude begins with a graphic sex tape of schoolteacher Emi (Katia Pascariu) and her husband, which ends up going viral and forces her to go through her daily chores knowing she may end up at a meeting with the angry parents of her students, most of whom have seen the video that she did not release. Bad Luck Banging or Looney Porn’s first section follows Emi through the streets of Bucharest as she takes care of the things she had to do, but as we follow her, the camera lingers on or strays over to interesting graffiti or statues or something that stands out (to us, but probably not locals) as unusual about this seemingly progressive city. The second section is more encyclopedic, as we get a montage that is part Romanian history lesson, summary of attitudes about sex, gender, war, injustice, ethnic identity, politics, entertainment, and other attitudes that seem to typify the country’s culture, most of which isn’t especially flattering. Finally, we get the parent-teacher “trial,” which brings out many of the same attitudes, conspiracy theories, and double standards that make up every community, but they seem to typify this place using insightful observations. The cross-section of the group of parents is as much of a nightmare as you might imagine, but Emi does have her supporters, who understand that there is nothing wrong with sex, or making a tape of it. She didn’t release it or want it released, and it in no way detracts from her abilities to do her job, which by all account she does better than most at this prestigious school. Deliberately set in pandemic times, the film is very funny, biting at times, with a visual flair that launches its ideas and themes into absurd social commentary. (Steve Prokopy)
The film screens Sun., Oct 24 at 7:45pm at the AMC River East.
For the Left Hand
At first glance, Norman Malone doesn’t look like a superhero. His careful tread shows many miles on his personal odometer; his right arm and leg are atrophied from a childhood attack by his father. But when he sits down at a keyboard, his left hand thunders, flutters and whispers as he plays classical compositions written specifically for the left hand.
Journalist Howard Reich brought Malone to public attention with his Chicago Tribune feature on the pianist (and retired Chicago Public School music teacher) in 2015. That article generated publicity for Malone and soon, the pianist, who had been collecting and practicing classical compositions written for the left hand in secret for decades, gained local and national recognition. He made his concert debut in 2016 at age 78, performing “the piece he was meant to play,” Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Malone also has commissioned new works, such as compositions by two Chicago musicians, Reginald Robinson and Miguel de la Cerna, who both appear in the film.
Leslie Simmer and Gordon Quinn direct For the Left Hand for Kartemquin Films, with Reich as writer/producer. Their creative and exhilarating documentary introduces Malone as a brave and persistent artist who believes “music is a way of surviving.”
The directors blend musical performance with professional and family scenes to tell Malone’s story over the years, incorporating interviews with Malone, colleagues, former students and family members. Skillful editing (Simmer is Kartemquin’s director of editing) dramatizes news clippings, family photos, and Malone’s annotated sheet music, as well as his long, expressive face and eyes. The result Is a lively and inspiring 75-minute film. (Nancy Bishop)
For the Left Hand is available for virtual viewing through October 24.
More than one generation grew up with the booming yet warm voice of Julia Child talking them through the steps to roasting a chicken or perfecting a hollandaise on her long-running cooking shows, from The French Chef in the 1960s to her series with colleague Jacques Pepin in the late 1990s. More than that, she taught countless amateur chefs how to let go of their anxieties about recipes or techniques and simply enjoy being in the kitchen, creating meals with as much love as flavor. In Julia, the new documentary by filmmaking team Julie Cohen and Betsy West (co-directors on two other must-see docs recently, My Name is Pauli Murray and RGB), the life of one-time OSS officer (not technically a spy, but still, pretty badass) turned chef, cookbook author and media darling is charted with the same care and joie de vivre that Child brought to her kitchens. Child grew up wealthy, expected to marry well and build a home for her husband and family the way her own heiress mother had done; the filmmakers take care to explore how this upbringing, buttoned up and predetermined as it was, gave Child something to rebel against, even in her own polite ways. The discussion of the sort of bland, uneventful food she would’ve grown up eating sheds particularly delightful insight into who the young debutant would grow up to be.
As in their earlier films, Cohen and West are especially talented at elevating this noteworthy woman’s life and legacy to more than just what she’s best known for. In Julia, Child is soulful, playful, ambitious, and more; here, she’s even sexual and romantic, madly in love with her husband and best friend, Paul (whom she married “late” in her mid-30s), and wise beyond her years as she explains in a letter the three Fs to keeping a husband happy: feeding him, flattering him and…well, you can guess that last one. Julia could have easily been a film comprising the chef’s greatest hits, recounting her best years on television and her contributions to French cuisine in America. But thankfully, Cohen and West make much better use of their subject’s many facets, presenting instead a complete picture of a woman who followed her heart—and her tastebuds—to truly build a life all her own, one that, gratefully, we all get to share in, too. (Lisa Trifone)
Julia screens Sunday, October 24 at 2p at AMC River East.
Sticky, icky, scary and trippy, this insane trip into the many levels of stop-motion animation hell comes from the mind and patient hands of creature creator, special effects legend, and stop-motion genius Phil Tippett, who took something like 30 years to finish Mad God. Largely dialogue free, but no less impactful, this horror-fantasy populated by one grotesque creature after another is about a lone soldier who seems to be on a deeply personal mission that takes him deeper and deeper into danger, gore, unidentifiable goop, beasts of every shape and size—if a movie could smell bad, this one would offend the senses to no end. Tippett is best known for his stop-motion work in the Star Wars movies and Jurassic Park, but Mad God is an entirely different monster (literally), taking us on a visual journey that never stops being ghastly in its originality yet elegantly crafted and impressive in its universe building. The setting feels like a place where humanity has gone to die forever, but this one soldier may be its last hope. Do not miss this utterly original freak show. (Steve Prokopy)
The film screens Fri., Oct. 22 at 10:30pm at AMC River East.
Marking the feature debut from writer/director Constance Meyer, the French feature Robust tells a story of a young female wrestler on the way up and an aging male actor on the way down. Their lives cross unexpectedly and this strange but fitting human connection somehow makes them both better people in the end. Gérard Depardieu plays Georges, a perhaps exaggerated version of himself—difficult to work with, lazy, lost in his own selfish needs, and nearing the point of going broke if he quits or is fired from another film. His long-time security guard leaves town for several weeks and leaves one of his most promising young employees, Aïssa (the staggeringly good Déborah Lukumuena) to tend to Georges. She happens to be an amateur women’s wrestling champ, but she also has a remarkable, intuitive sense of how to handle the impossibly needy actor and wrangle him when he’s feeling restless or bored. The two form a really touching friendship, while he remembers loves long gone and she allows herself to get excited about the early stages of a relationship that is just kicking off. The film is often quite funny, with Depardieu leaning into his reputation with such precision that it reminds you what an absolute talent he has always been, while Lukumuena exudes the perfect blend of empathy, soul and toughness that is both charming and shockingly effective. Director Meyer includes some beautiful little touches about both of their lives, and the result is two lovely character studies that are made better by being placed side by side. (Steve Prokopy)
The film screens Fri., Oct 22 at 7:45pm at the AMC River East.
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín is one of the most compelling artists currently working in the medium. His career is grounded in social and political commentary, from 2012’s No, about an ad exec navigating a campaign to defeat Pinochet, to 2015’s The Club, about a group of priests exiled from the church for their abuse of children, to this year’s Ema, about a woman who lacks every instinct possible to be a mother yet wants that experience more than anything. In 2016, Larraín transitioned to English-language scripts with the woefully underrated Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as the famed presidential widow. Now, he tackles another famous woman’s story in Spencer, a pulsing, heartbreaking account of a weekend in the life of Princess Diana (played by a breathtaking Kristen Stewart) as her marriage crumbles around her and life in the royal family becomes nearly too suffocating to bear.
The film is billed as a fable, and in fact one of the very first things we see on screen is a similar disclaimer: a fable based on true, tragic events. Which, once you’ve seen the film, is starkly fitting. Describing it as a recounting of the weekend in 1991 when the family gathered at Sandringham, the Queen’s Scotland home, certainly doesn’t do the film justice. That would imply that it’s some sort of chronological account of the facts, an unbiased reenactment of what transpired the weekend Charles and Diana finally decided to end their doomed union. Instead, Spencer is so unabashedly a story of Diana’s trauma, frustration, fear and sadness (and Stewart is such a commanding presence) that the rest of the cast, including Jack Farthing as Charles and Stella Gonet as the Queen, barely even register on screen. We see Diana briefly with her children, but those who truly register on her radar are those who tend to her on a daily basis (whether she likes it or not), dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and one of the Queen’s security detail, Major Gregory (a sour-faced Timothy Spall).
Unlike other overly polished portraits of the Princess of Wales, Spencer aims to humanize Diana in ways that aren’t always entirely flattering. Stewart’s Diana is so fragile she’s nearly broken, so paranoid she’s nearly immobilized, so sad and dejected she nearly disappears. Building on Steven Knight’s claustrophobic, ghostly script (literally, there are ghosts of royals past…), Larraín creates in a visual medium something that’s actually quite cerebral and internal, Diana’s own intrusive thoughts, fears and struggles manifested on screen. The whole affair is made all the more difficult to watch knowing what we do about this young woman’s fate, about how the family, the media, the world would ultimately desert her and leave her careening towards a tragic end. From moment to moment, Stewart makes Diana’s pain palpable; a particular scene speaking with Charles in a game room is haunting, her wordless response to his unkind words saying volumes.
By the time the holiday weekend comes to a close (and the film is nearing its end), one might start to wonder where it’s all leading, how this tragic figure is going to resolve herself to a life she can’t escape. To say that the film’s final scenes are cathartic is an understatement; whether they are rooted in fact or not is beside the point. Even if only a dream, these fleeting moments are the sweet relief, the happily ever after we want so badly for the Princess, a woman who so deserved them. Larraín’s beautifully devastating work leaves us aching for the Diana who never quite found her footing in the world she married into and grateful more than ever for any moments of happiness she did manage to glean from her isolated existence. (Lisa Trifone)
Spencer screens Friday, October 22 at 8p at AMC River East.
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