Talking Screens: A Week In Chicago Film, October 8-14, 2021
The form-yet-to-be-found current-affairs chatshow “The Problem With Jon Stewart” is on Apple TV Plus; in “No Time To Die,” or, “Cry Macho, Cry,” Bond leaves nothing to chance; and “The Many Saints Of Newark,” is partially a prequel to “The Sopranos.” The Music Box brings a month of horrors to the drive-in, in partnership with Shudder. Mike Leigh’s having a complete retrospective in London and has a few words, including his expectations that he will continue to work after his death; and looking toward this month’s Chicago International Film Festival, we talk Chicago-style filmmaking with the filmmakers behind Kartemquin’s “For The Left Hand.“
Well, yes, we have been expecting you, Mr. Bond. The fifth and final installment of the franchise featuring Daniel Craig runs a record 163 minutes. Yet the pacing of individual scenes in “No Time To Die” is often confident, even serene, with director Cary Joji Fukunaga (“True Detective”) coming as close to a “slowww cinema” as a product like this could ever come. Not boring… but patient. “We have all the time in the world” remains the most freighted of Bondian exhalations.
Affairs of the world delayed and delayed its release, making this the first Bond period piece, shot in 2019 in a world of limitless sea and relentless sky and in thronging settings like the village near Bond’s Jamaican retirement redoubt and Havana (doubled by Jamaica). A couple of prescient modern moments, though: Bond and his team, without wincing, are inoculated before a mission. And the not-so-memorable muttering bad guy: he’s got an inscrutable plan to kill millions with a bioweapon keyed to individual DNA, there’s that. “You know history isn’t kind to those who play god,” we’re reminded.
In the half-a-decade since his last outing, Craig’s face has meandered past avuncular and directly into fatherly: Craig is a cheeky fifty-three, but beyond what is surely the world’s most costly male moisturizing, these are features the folds and textures of a distinctly, distinctively older man. (Were his ears always that big? Is it the chewed-down haircut?)
Fukunaga and cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“American Hustle,” “First Man”) announce their esthetic intentions with a child-and-guns prologue that’s in lithe league with scenes from Joe Wright’s “Hanna” (2011). Another highlight features female presence, too: a burst of Ana de Armas (“Knives Out”) as a kinetically gifted fellow assassin who bonds with Bond by escaping obstacle after obstacle and gunman after gunman at a Cuban party, a nest filled with Spectre partygoers. Or “Spectre bunga-bunga,” as it’s described. (That’s one of the many jokes, gags and delightfully weird bits that it’s too easy to ascribe to co-screenwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge of “Fleabag.”)
Hans Zimmer’s score is fit-for-purpose, with its highest points being variations on the Monty Norman theme and the opening five or seven notes of the love theme between Bond and his inamorata of two pictures, Dr. Swann (Léa Seydoux), which promise to bloom into John Williams’ theme for Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” but do not.
Two favorite artful moments among the many clean, well-marshaled design choices: The preamble to a face-to-face between Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and Bond echoes with the library of paintings built by Francis Bacon of men in cages, caught in booths, Popes struck to scream by encroaching captivity, mortality, madness. Fukunaga and designer Mark Tildesley add robotic motion to the equation. And outside the Havana Spectre ball, the camera moves to the right along a second-floor balcony that is in shadow broken by undulations of light from police action below, and rests for a second longer than you’d expect on a mural of a distinctly recognizable Che Guevara, his head and shoulders leaned to one side, shielding himself, as if recoiling from a minor instant of useless, capacious destruction. My gasp at the weird beauty of its momentary formalist apparition was unbecoming. (There’s a similar shot in “Taxi Driver” when the camera tracks right away from Travis Bickle at a payphone, turning its stare to an empty corridor.)
No one knows the budgets of these things, produced from their inception by a family business. “No Time To Die” could well be one of the last blockbusters as well as one of the last, boldest efflorescences of completely independent filmmaking. This resolute family business, which did not fold in the face of reported entreaties from trillion-dollar entities like Apple, could as well be STFU or GTFO Productions as EON Productions. With Rami Malek, Lashana Lynch, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear, Dali Benssalah. In theaters.
A cryptogram for those who have repeatedly ingested the eighty-six hours of “The Sopranos,” or who just remember its shadows and sorrows in their bones, the dense, lightly likable “The Many Saints Of Newark” suffers from a glum, contemporary look that drains energy from the frame. Big studio movies have been obsessed with ranges of digital orange and teal for years, and now the relatively low-budget studio style for serious dramas is near-Stygian gloom. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (“Thor: The Dark World,” “Chef,” “Boardwalk Empire”) sets the light and mixes gloom with the teal-orange palette; the jam-packed matrix of stories, many of which are not about the young Tony Soprano at all, is directed by Alan Taylor (“Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones”). I’m resistant to complaints that a film has too much story, as well as reviews that dwell on that topic, or suggestions that a film’s makers are very well aware of the difference between making a feature film and creating a limited or open-ended series. But watching “The Many Saints Of Newark” after reading a conversation with longtime “Sopranos” analyst and encyclopedia author Matt Zoller Seitz, I was painfully aware of how many stories David Chase has to tell: it’s a key to a conversation between the two men. “He’s quick to laugh—an almost childlike giggle that becomes a doubled-over cackle when the jokes turn really dumb,” writes Seitz. “But from my perspective—that of someone who has known David for more than twenty years, ever since I was writing about TV for the Newark Star-Ledger, the paper that the bathrobe-clad Tony Soprano used to pick up at the end of his driveway—I sense depths of melancholy whenever he circles the reality that he’s pushing eighty and can’t tell all his untold tales in the time he has left, and that even if he could, he’d have trouble getting them made.” That’s the stuff that makes my eyes sting. But, auspiciously over the weekend, it was announced that Chase has signed a “five-year, first-look deal with the company to develop content for HBO, HBO Max and Warner Bros. Pictures Group.” As “Many Saints” opened, Toby Emmerich, chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, said, “David has a singular voice and is a gifted writer and filmmaker. His work is pure and authentic, and highly compelling for a broad audience.” Bring it on. With Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Michael Gandolfini, John Magaro, Ray Liotta and Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga. In theaters and on HBO Max for twenty-four more days.
Middle-aged man yells at cloud, video when you want it: the still-unformed current-affairs chatshow “The Problem With Jon Stewart” makes its debut on Apple TV Plus—”War” is a starter topic. Stewart has made fun of how his looks have changed, from young firebrand to grizzled and middle-aged yet extremely earnest man. “The Problem” can only get better.
Kartemquin’s “For The Left Hand” Debuts At Chicago International
Shifts are everywhere in the documentary film world, including at legendary production powerhouse Kartemquin, but one thing remains the same: projects get made and get released into the world. Kartemquin’s “For The Left Hand,” has its local premiere at the fifty-seventh Chicago International Film Festival this month. “At age ten, aspiring pianist Norman Malone is paralyzed on his right side after being attacked by his father,” reads the Kartemquin synopsis. “Over the next several decades, he masters the left-hand repertoire in secret, before a chance discovery of his talent leads him toward making his concert debut. Aged seventy-eight, he will perform the greatest work in the canon: Ravel’s ‘Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.'” We talked about the Chicago roots of the film with director Gordon Quinn [Newcity Film 50 Hall of Fame], editor-director Leslie Simmer [Newcity Film 50], producer Diane Quon [Newcity Film 50] and writer-producer Howard Reich.
If there is such a thing as a “Chicago” film, how does “For The Left Hand” typify or exemplify it? In your story and subject, and in the style of storytelling?
GORDON QUINN: This is an old question. I think there is a Chicago ethos to many of the films that are by filmmakers that live here. Even many who move to L.A. but grew up here, like Andy Davis [“The Fugitive”] keep returning to their roots for story and location. Theirs is a sense of place and storytelling that strives for integrity, while being open to experimentation. Location in the streets and nationhood and improvisation are a Chicago film hallmark. My earliest work was all Chicago, “Home for Life,” “Maxwell Street,” “Thumbs Down.” Our team on “For The Left Hand,” except for me, was born and raised here. I was born and raised in Virginia, but now after sixty years, I call Chicago home!
HOWARD REICH: “For the Left Hand” is about 110 percent a Chicago film. The story that inspired it was written by a Chicago arts critic (me) and appeared in the pages of the Chicago Tribune. Its subject is lifelong Chicagoan Norman Malone. The tragedy Malone suffered at the hands of his father in a Chicago housing project, and Malone’s triumph over it in Chicago’s public schools and concert halls is inseparable from this city’s social and racial history.
QUINN: Over the years, we had shot other films in many of the schools and neighborhoods in Norman’s life. Just as important, everyone—again, except for me—had played classical piano, and this was a story that wanted music at its center.
LESLIE SIMMER: To me, so much of the crux of the film is Norman’s journey to perform with an orchestra for the first time. Howard had been teasing us with finally hearing his own explication of the Ravel. We knew we were going to eventually film that, but decided to film him as a placeholder where he first reveals to us how he interprets the piece. We never re-filmed Howard because he was so great in the placeholder shoot. When Ashish, one of our amazing interns who was at the interview, asked Howard, “How is the way Norman plays the Ravel different from anyone else?” and as an editor, I saw how Norman’s journey intersected with [the left-handed pianist Paul] Wittgenstein’s, and that Howard’s discussion of the piece and of Norman’s nervousness could be our narrator for that part of the journey.
Did you rely on Chicago post-production, collaborators, community? Could you have or would you have embarked on or completed your picture without the Chicago community?
QUINN: This was all Chicago from beginning to end, from the filmmaking team to post houses. NoiseFloor, which did the final audio mix, has deep Chicago roots. I first met Cory Coken, a NoiseFloor founder, through his dad, Rick, when mixing “Hoop Dreams.” I met Rick when he worked at Zenith, [which was] behind the neighborhood camera store on Foster where we mixed some of our earliest 16mm films.
REICH: The documentary was produced by Kartemquin Films, a quintessential Chicago institution if ever there were one. I knew I had to bring this story to Kartemquin, because Malone’s narrative deserved no less than the unflinching, eyes-wide-open Kartemquin ethos.
DIANE QUON: From the beginning, the Chicago community has supported the film. Chicago audiences embraced his story, including students from the CPS schools he taught at, and he began to be invited to play in front of audiences, which he had never done before. It was then that we knew it had to be a Kartemquin film! And it does take a village to make a film, especially when it comes to fundraising. We were amazed at the generosity of organizations who let us use their venues, from Logan Center in Hyde Park, to PianoForte downtown to the Gorton Center in Lake Forest, to host fundraisers. And audiences responded. Their gifts allowed us to make this film.
What does it mean for your film, and for yourself, to be showcased in CIFF, which has become more visible and influential in programming documentary work?
QUINN: Many of our films have been featured and premiered at CIFF over the years. We are thrilled to see the festival paying more attention to the important Chicago film community that was always here. Our CIFF debut will be at the Siskel Film Center and we love seeing this kind of collaboration among Chicago’s premier film organizations.
QUON: Personally, when I had just started thinking about working in the world of documentary in 2015, the Chicago International Film Festival was one of the first fests I ever attended. I was so amazed at the breadth of films and loved chatting with fellow Chicagoans while waiting in line! It’s so special to now have a hand in a film that is playing at CIFF—a festival that has only grown and become more influential and respected within the industry. It’s really a dream come true to be premiering a film here, and in my hometown.
REICH: I consider the Chicago premiere of “For the Left Hand” at CIFF a personal high point for my work as writer and filmmaker. Because this is such a Chicago story, so poetically crafted by Kartemquin, I could wish for no better way to launch the film in our hometown. It’s a way of saying Norman Malone’s story is important—even essential—to Chicago, and we all can learn from it. [Purchase festival tickets here.]
CHICAGO HALLOWEEN SEEEEEN
The kino-Halloween scene in Chicago takes the entire month to unspool, including Shudder’s presentation of a month of the blood-spackled spooktacular of “The Music Box of Horrors: Dawn of the Drive-In” at Chi-Town Movies in Pilsen. Throughout October, the forces of darkness commandeer the urban drive-in, with late shows Sunday-Thursday, and double-features each Friday and Saturday. The themes are Nü-Metal Mondays, Thirsty Thursdays, Friday Night Double Features, Rip-Off Saturdays and Serial Killer Sundays. “With mind-melting visuals and high body counts, this year’s lineup is perfectly in line with the Music Box’s eclectic taste in horror offerings and events,” the Music Box relays, “a combination of audience favorites and rarely screened titles, specialized intros, pre-show content, filmmaker Q&As, nightly trivia with fantastic prizes, and of course, some surprises.” Admittance begins 30 minutes prior to the film’s listed start time; seating areas are available to those who choose to be non-vehicular. Attractions here.
Mike Leigh’s getting a complete retrospective in London—that’s a lot of cinema and telly—and Zoe Williams at the Guardian has a short, sharp exchange about his work at the age of seventy-eight, with fifty years of filmmaking behind him. “COVID wrecked his recent projects – there is no way he could have made socially distanced work. ‘It takes time to develop a scene, time and patience, long improvisations in character, allowing things to just stay a little too long, not trying to make anything happen. This can result in fantastically boring improvisation, but that’s part of the organic growth.’ He won’t tell me what his next project is. He won’t tell me why he won’t tell me. Does he think he’ll be working till his deathbed? ‘I’m sure I’ll be working after I’ve died.'”
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.