Chicago International Film Festival #1

Unfussy cinematography by Jay Silver captures the chill of a Chicago winter, while an excellent crew of actors creates a rich portrait of life among people who have absolutely nothing to do with the glamorous Chicago seen in tourist brochures.


The Last Rites of Joe May
You probably know Dennis Farina as Detective Joe Fontana on Law & Order, or perhaps as the mobster Ray Barboni in Get Shorty. An always-reliable character actor whose roles often draw on his 18 years of service with the Chicago Police Department, Farina finally gets a leading role in The Last Rites of Joe May, directed by Joe Maggio. Farina plays the title character, an aging Chicago gangster who refuses to acknowledge that the world has moved on and he’s been left behind.
When we first meet Joe May, he’s checking out of the county hospital after a seven-week bout of pneumonia. In what will become a mantra, the first words spoken to him upon his return to his old neighborhood are, “I thought you were dead.” Not only have Joe’s friends given up on him, most of the trappings of his life have vanished as well: his apartment rented out, his belongings destroyed, his car impounded and sold at auction. His best friend Billy (Chelcie Rosse) has moved into a retirement home and none of his old business associates will give him the time of day, as they don’t want to be bothered with someone they view as no longer useful.
Joe May is an American archetype—the hustler with a heart of gold—because while his business dealings may have been shady, they were also low-key and non-violent (his specialty is selling goods which fell off a truck), and he adheres to a code of loyalty and respect. This latter proves to be a handicap in his present circumstances, as does his fixed belief that his big break is just around the corner.
The new occupants of Joe’s apartment are the young mother Jenny Rapp (Jamie Anne Allman) and her charming (and aptly-named) daughter Angelina (Meredith Droeger). They need money, Joe needs a place to live, so he rents one of their rooms and hence becomes involved in their lives, as well. Jenny has a violent boyfriend named Stanley (Ian Barford), a cop who doesn’t hesitate to use the privileges of his badge to keep her from reporting him. Stanley provides such a neat contrast to Joe that you just know they’re going to have it out, and while the storyline is predictable, it’s also well-played enough that it doesn’t feel entirely like a set-up.
The Last Rites of Joe May is not a perfect film, but it’s definitely one worth seeing. Unfussy cinematography by Jay Silver captures the chill of a Chicago winter, while an excellent crew of actors creates a rich portrait of life among people who have absolutely nothing to do with the glamorous Chicago seen in tourist brochures. On the down side, the film goes on too long (an entire sequence with Joe’s adult son sits uncomfortably with the rest of the story and could easily have been cut) and doesn’t quite achieve the mythic dimension that Maggio (who also wrote the script) is clearly aiming for.
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel
Directors Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, and Frederic Tcheng make innovative use of archival materials in Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, a documentary about the life of the legendary fashion editor and tastemaker. The centerpiece is a series of interviews Vreeland made with George Plimpton in preparation for her 1984 biography D.V., which are recreated here with actor Annette Miller voicing Vreeland’s words. Interviews with a veritable who’s who of the fashion world (Verushka, Oscar de la Renta, Manolo Blahnick, Richard Avedon) further testify to Vreeland’s importance, with the result that even the least fashionable viewer will come away with a sense of who she was and why we should care.
Vreeland’s best quality was her fearlessness, a characteristic born of a privileged upbringing coupled with her lack of conventional beauty (her mother was fond of reminding her that her sister was the pretty one). Unable to coast through life on her looks, Vreeland instead sharpened her eye (she claims to have discovered both Lauren Bacall and the artistic possibilities of Barbra Streisand’s nose) and her tongue, setting the stuffy world of fashion journalism on its ear. After lengthy stints at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, she did the same with the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, using archival materials to create dramatic displays that captured the mood of an era. The public began attending in droves and Vreeland blithely ignored the protests of horrified curators (one said she dressed the mannequins “like a football player”) who were more interested in preservation and technical study of the fabrics than in telling a story through fashion.
Remember Vreeland’s red living room, recreated in Infamous? You get to see the real one here, with the real Truman Capote, as well, and it fully lives up to Vreeland’s stated desire that it “look like a garden, but a garden in hell.” That was pretty much Vreeland’s approach to life: She wrote a column titled “Why don’t you…” which featured off-the-wall fashion suggestions and summed up her philosophy with “you learn from exaggeration.”
The weak link in Diana Vreeland is the quality of the visual archival materials available. Particularly in the early sections of the film, the directors rely too much on clips from period films (and not always well-chosen clips, at that) and television interviews, and the low resolution of those materials is emphasized when they are enlarged to fill the big screen. It’s hard to believe that Vreeland would have tolerated such ugliness, and for this reason Diana Vreeland may be better viewed on television than in the theater. When the story gets closer to the present, the quality of the materials improves, allowing you to settle back and enjoy the tale of one of the great tastemakers of the 20th century. | Sarah Boslaugh


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