Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Last Rites of Joe May - Chicago Film Festival

You may have met someone like Joe May at one point in your life. He's a helluva guy, but don't tell him that- he thinks he's just a regular fella. He does the right thing, bottom line, even if his actions may get him in trouble. He's also one of the most memorable characters you'll see this year in film and you'll remember him for a long time, thanks to a dazzling performance by Dennis Farina.

The Last Rites of Joe May was written and directed by Joe Maggio, who also performed those tasks for Bitter Feast (2010) and Paper Covers Rock (2008) among others. For Last Rites, Maggio has created a character that we feel for from the start; in his sixties, Joe May is being released from the hospital after a seven-week battle with pneumonia. But apparently Joe forgot to tell his landlord, who thought he either died or moved away, so the landlord has thrown all of Joe's belongings away and has rented his apartment to a single mother named Jenny (Jamie Allman). She's not exactly doing great financially, as we see her pilfer the small orange juice containers that her patients at a nearby hospital don't consume. She's raising a young daughter named Angelina (Meredith Droeger), who never knew her father.

The individual stories of these three slowly start to intertwine, as Joe agrees to share the apartment with Jenny and Angelina, as he will pay part of the rent each month. Now that Joe has a place to stay again, he can go back to his old friends and try make a few extra bucks. He's been a small time crook, fencing watches and radios on the street, but in his heart, he believes he can truly make a lot of money, if only the right situation comes along.

                            Photo by Jay Silver

Meanwhile, we learn that Jenny has a boyfriend who beats her from time to time. When Joe sees him for the first time, he tells him to leave or he'll call the cops. Trouble is, he's a police detective, so there's little that Jenny or Joe can do to stop him. All Joe can do is try and comfort her, but that's not an easy thing for a rough and tumble guy like him. In one scene she asks him if he would hold her, to which Joe replies, "I don't think that's a good idea."

Joe however does start to look after Angelina, tucking her in bed at night and chatting with her at breakfast. She's thrilled to have a father figure in her life and she asks if Joe will have breakfast with her the next morning and the one after that. It's a simple scene, but a critical one in the film and it's one of several moving moments.

There are several factors as to why this film captures our attention from the first frame. Much of the credit goes to Maggio for his script, which has a honest ring to it and is never forced. Every character, from the three major players to the ones with small roles, talk just like you'd expect them to. This is a street drama at its most basic, taking places in the ethnic restaurants, alleyways and neighborhood bars of Chicago and it sounds just right. One other note about the script: Joe May swears a lot in this movie and he'll swear at anyone. It's not for shock value - it's just the way he's talked for most of his life and it's part of this character's charm as well as a good deal of the film's humor. There is one line that Joe May yells at a cabdriver (I won't give it away) that is one of the funniest lines I've heard in a film in years - you may fall out of your seat when you hear it!

The visuals are another reason why this film is so strong, so realistic. I've lived in Chicago my entire life and I love the look of this film. This is not about the lakefront or tall buildings - only the tops of skyscrapers are visible in a couple shots - but rather the snow-covered streets of Halsted Street in winter time. There's a cool, blue tone to the cinematography which fits the visuals perfectly and gives the film a bit of a bleak look. There are several marvelous shots here; the two I loved the most are the #8 bus on Halsted under a viaduct on a windswept snowy evening, while the other has Angelina and Joe swinging a pole around on their roof in order to scatter his pigeons in flight, as they are released from their coops. This last shot is quite hypnotic as well as being lovely to look at; it's also a tender moment between Joe and Angelina, as their affection for each other grows.

I've read, by the way, that Dennis Farina himself had a major influence in having this movie shot in Chicago. The film was originally scheduled to be shot in New York City, but Farina, a native Chicagoan, asked Maggio about doing it in his (Farina's) hometown. Once Maggio and his team scouted out some of Chicago neighborhoods, the decision was made to film in Chicago and a few minor script changes were made.

So a first-rate script and just-right visuals (as well as an impressive bare-bones original score by Lindsay Marcus) are among the strong points of The Last Rites of Joe May, but above all, it is the performance by Dennis Farina as the title character that ties everything together. I've always liked Farina for the honest emotions he displays in his roles - everything about his work has been just right. He looks perfect for the part with his thick grey hair and time-worn face and he finds a nice balance between quiet frustration and explosive bursts of temper. It is quite proper to use the cliché that he was born to play this part, but it's entirely accurate in this case. Dennis Farina is simply great as Joe May and for my money, it's the performance of his career.

Honestly written and acted, The Last Rites of Joe May is primarily a quiet film about a man who only wants to continue doing things as he's always done them. It is a wonderful piece of work and one that I highly recommend.

The Last Rites of Joe May is a Tribeca Film that was the opening presentation at the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival on October 6. It opens in New York City on November 4 and at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago on November 25.

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