Scenes That I Love: The Ending of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America


The final moments of Sergio Leone’s epic 1984 gangster film, Once Upon A Time in America, are filed with questions and mysteries.

In 1968, who did Noodles (played by Robert De Niro) see standing outside of Max’s mansion?  When the garbage truck pulled up, did the mysterious man get in the truck or was he thrown in by some unseen force?

Why, in 1968, did Noodles see a car from the 1920s, one that was full of people who appeared to be celebrating the end of prohibition?  Was the car really there, in 1968, or was it an element of Noodles’s past as a gangster suddenly popping into his mind?

When we then see a young Noodles in an opium den, are we flashing back to the 1920s?  Is Noodles remembering the past or is it possible that we’ve been in the 20s the whole time and all of the scenes set in 1968 were actually only a drug-induced dream?

Why, with men looking to kill him and all of his friends apparently dead, does Noodles suddenly smile at the end of the film?  Is that sudden smile a result of the drugs or is there something else going on?

Once Upon A Time In America was Sergio Leone’s final film.  It’s one that he spent decades trying to get made and, once it was finally produced, it was butchered and re-edited by a studio hacks who demanded that the film tell its story in a linear style.  Leone was reportedly heart-broken by how his film was treated.  Some have speculated that his disappointment may have even contributed to the heart attack that eventually killed him.  It was only after Leone passed that his version of Once Upon A Time In America became widely available in the U.S.  This enigmatic epic continues to spark debate.  One thing that can’t be denied is that it’s a brilliant film.

As today is Leone’s birthday, it only seems appropriate to share a scene that I love, the ending of Once Upon A Time In America.

Miniseries Review: The Last Don II (dir by Graeme Clifford)

The Clericuzio saga continues and it’s sillier than ever!

The Clericuzios were the Mob family who were first introduced in a Mario Puzo novel called The Last Don.  In 1997, CBS turned The Last Don in a three-part miniseries.  The ratings were good enough that, in 1999, the network gave the world a two-episode sequel, The Last Don II.  The Last Don II was created without the input of Mario Puzo (who died shortly before the miniseries aired) but director Graeme Clifford returned, as did a few members of the cast.

For example, Danny Aiello briefly returns as the honorable but aging Don Domenico Clericuzio, talking about life in the old country and demanding to know why some of his children have yet to marry.  Under his leadership, the Clericuzios are almost totally legit and they’ve even become powerful in Hollywood.  Claudia De Lena (Michelle Burke) is in charge of the family’s film studio and has recently become engaged to a film star named Dirk Von Schelburg (Andrew Jackson, trying to do an Arnie impersonation but coming across more like Jean-Claude Van Damme).  Still, despite the fact that the Clericuzios are (slowly) abandoning organized crime, they haven’t completely cut their ties.  They still have enemies.  And when Don Clericuzio dies after dancing at his final birthday party, those enemies are set to strike.

Who can run the Clericuzio family?  Only one of the Don’s son was actively involved in the underworld aspect of the organization and he’s promptly (and, to be honest, hilariously) crushed when someone drops a shipping crate on him.  Another Clericuzio son is gunned down at his legitimate business, proving that someone is trying to take out the entire family, regardless of whether they’re a part of the family business or not.  Georgio Clericuzio (David Marciano) goes to Paris and tires to convince Claudia’s brother, Cross (Jason Gedrick), to return from exile to take things over.  Cross refuses because he’s happily married to the most famous actress in the world, the improbably named Athena Aquataine (Mo Kelso, replacing Daryl Hannah in the role).  However, Athena is subsequently blown up by a bomb that was meant for Cross and that’s all it takes to bring Cross back to America.

Now that Cross is in charge, he sets about to discover who, among the other Families, is targeting the Clericuzios.  Helping him out with this is Billy D’Angelo (James Wilder), who we are told is the the most important of the Clericuzios capos, despite the fact that he was neither seen nor mentioned in the previous Last Don.  It seems pretty obvious from the start that Billy is not to be trusted.  Everyone who has ever seen The Godfather will automatically look at Billy and say, “There’s your rat.”  But Cross is a remarkably naïve crime lord.  He’s apparently the only guy in the Mafia who has never seen a Mafia movie.

Of course, there’s more going on than just Cross trying to figure out who is targeting the Clericuzio family.  His unstable aunt, Rose Marie (Kirstie Alley), wants revenge for the murder of her son Dante but, fortunately, she’s distracted by an affair with the family’s priest (Jason Isaacs, of all people).  Disgraced former studio exec Bobby Bantz (Robert Wuhl) is plotting against Claudia.  And finally, Cross is falling in love with his stepdaughter’s nanny (Patsy Kensit) despite the fact that it’s kind of obvious that the nanny is actually an undercover FBI agent.  Remember what I said about Cross being impossibly naïve?

The Last Don was a fairly silly miniseries.  The Last Don 2 is even sillier but, for that every reason, it’s also a bit more entertaining.  If the first Last Don was held together by the rivalry between Cross and Dante, the sequel is held together by a nonstop flow of melodrama, overheated dialogue, and thoroughly unsubtle acting.  It’s as if the director looked at every over-the-top scene and said, “It’s okay but can we turn things up just a little bit more?”  As such, tt’s not enough for Danny Aiello to merely make a cameo before his character dies.  Instead, he has to deliver cryptic words of wisdom about family and and honor and he has to do one final, Zorbaesque dance of joy before his heart gives out.  Meanwhile, Kirstie Alley really throws herself into playing the insane Rose Marie and whether she’s seducing a priest or hoarsely yelling that she doesn’t know how to ice skate, her performance is always more than strange enough to be watchable.  Jason Isaacs, meanwhile, furrows his brow desperately as he tries to resist temptation.  Patsy Kensit is the world’s worst FBI agent while Kim Coates shows up as one of her colleagues.  Conrad Dunn returns as Lia, the Sicilian assassin with the world’s silliest mustache.  Even the presence of Robert Wuhl is less of a problem in the sequel.  With everyone chewing up every piece of scenery that they can get their hands on, it somehow makes sense that Robert Wuhl would show up and start yelling, “DON’T LAUGH AT ME!”  Somehow, it even seems appropriate that Joe Mantegna receives a “special appearance” credit, even though his character pretty much only appears in the archival footage used during the opening credits.  The Last Don II is just that type of miniseries.

Jason Gedrick and James Wilder are both good actors and they both do what they can with the roles of Cross and Billy.  Unfortunately, both of them were seriously miscast in The Last Don 2.  Neither one of them is the least bit Italian and Wilder was a bit too young to be convincing as the most feared capo in the family.  Compared to the classic gangster films that inspired them, both The Last Don and its sequel feels more like gangster cosplay than an actual portrait of life as a member of the Cosa Nostra.  Like the first Last Don, The Last Don II suffers from a lack of authenticity but it’s just ludicrous enough to be fun.

Patreon Preview Week : “Scoop Scuttle And His Pals : The Crackpot Comics Of Basil Wolverton,” Edited By Greg Sadowski

I do this once a year, and figured the first week of the year might be a better time for it than some random week in July or August or whatever — essentially the point here being, and I’m not too proud to admit it, to gin up a little interest in my Patreon site by offering everyone a sampling of the wares they’ll find if they decide to join up. I update it three times weekly, and seriously, it does help make all this writing (somewhat) financially viable. Plus, we’ve got a great group of folks on there, the conversation in the comments section is usually pretty lively, and everyone whose a member is, at the risk of sounding corny, more than just a member, they’re a friend. And couldn’t we all do with more of those in life? Anyway, first up is a review I did a couple months back of editor Greg Sadowski’s 2021 Fantagraphics collection SCOOP SCUTTLE AND HIS PALS : THE CRACKPOT COMICS OF BASIL WOVERTON, with a link to my Patreon at the end if you’re interested in reading more stuff of this nature..

Most people are well aware that visionary cartoonist Basil Wolverton’s legendary contributions to MAD were hardly his first go-’round with humor strips, but leave it to Wolverton scholar par excellence Greg Sadowski to curate a long-overdue collection of some of his most obscure and overlooked comedic creations of the 1940s and 1950s : goofball reporter Scoop Scuttle, magic-nosed swami Mystic Moot, idiot savant cowboy Bingbang Buster and his horse Hedy, and slapstick spacefarer Jumpin’ Jupiter. To say that none of these characters made much by way of a lasting impression on the readership of the time is undoubtedly true, sure — but each in their own way presaged much of the madcap shenanigans to come from Wolverton’s mind and pen, and their misadventures are sure to delight even the most jaded of modern readers.

Which, admittedly, is a camp that I all-too-frequently find myself numbered amongst, given my frankly robust reading schedule, yet even for those of us who’ve literally seen it all before, there’s something about seeing how it was done earlier that feels like, if you’ll forgive the cliche, a breath of fresh air. And talking of cliches —

OF COURSE they’re a dime a dozen in these pages, but Wolverton’s ability to poke good-natured fun at them remains an unbridled joy, even if the occasional ethnic stereotype rightly gives today’s readers some pause. That being said, such offensive caricatures are in far shorter supply in Wolverton’s work than they are in that of many of his contemporaries, and the persons, places, and things he draws are so uniformly outlandish that they don’t especially stand out from what’s more or less ALWAYS a crowded field of visual eccentricities. Simply stated, then, it’s safe to say that these stories (and it should be stated for the record that Sadowski presents the printed exploits of all four characters in their entirety) were all constructed as FUN strips fist and foremost, and that they remain precisely that to this day.

Admittedly, there’s no escaping the fact that these are “toned down” a notch compared to Wolverton’s MAD work, but it’s intriguing to see him feeling his way forward, so to speak, and it’s also important to remember that he was working under undoubtedly tighter editorial standards. Even for all that, though, there’s a tremendous amount of innovation on display in many of these strips, and not just in terms of the far-out sound effects that Sadowski draws particular attention to in his thoroughly absorbing introductory essay — indeed, the page layouts, intuitive flow of the action, outrageous character designs, and even some of the plot twists are all several levels above and beyond the standard humor comics fare of the era.

None of which means this isn’t ultimately formulaic stuff, mind you — but a big part of Wolverton’s genius always rested in his ability to thoroughly subvert expectation WITHIN a given formula; to give readers a combination of MORE than what they bargained for and EXACTLY what they bargained for simultaneously. In that respect, then, this necessarily “hemmed in” work could potentially be said to represent a MORE INGENIOUS distillation of the “Wolverton ethos,” if you will, than later material where he was more free to let it all hang out.

Sure, ultimately I don’t think there’s any argument that SCOOP SCUTTLE AND HIS PALS will primarily be of interest to hard-core Wolverton aficionados above all (certainly the admirable amount of care that went into the flat-out amazing restoration process makes this an essential purchase even for collectors who might own a fair number of time-yellowed originals), but it’s also this critic’s considered opinion that Sadowski has managed to put together a collection that damn near ANYONE can take a tremendous amount of enjoyment from, be they crusty veteran or member of comics laity. Given what we’ve all been through over the past year and change, some extra laughter in our lives is likely to be welcomed by anyone and everyone, and if the source of that laughter is 70-80 years old, then hell, that’s reason to be IMPRESSED as well as amused.

Okay, I hope you’ve enjoyed this first little sample offering. If you’re interested in more, my Patreon costs as little as a dollar a month to join and can be found by heading over to

Battles of Chief Pontiac (1952, directed by Felix E. Feist)

A decade before the start of the American Revolution, the British have managed to force the French out of the Great Lakes region.  Fort Detroit has been established to oversee the area and provide protection from the Odawa tribe.  Chief Pontiac (Lon Chaney, Jr.) believes that the Odawa and the White Man can live in peace but his beliefs are challenged when the British bring in a brutal German mercenary, Col. von Weber (Berry Kroeger), to patrol the land.  After Col. von Weber and his soldiers massacre a village, Pontiac and the Odawa prepare for war.

Lt. Kent McIntire (Lex Barker, who was best known for playing the role of Tarzan in several movies) is a Colonial officer and a scout who is convinced that he can broker a peace between the Odawa and the British.  Odawa respects and trusts McIntire but when von Weber tries to wipe the Odawa out by sending them small pox-infected blankets, Pontiac realizes that there can be no peace and he launches an attack on Fort Detroit.

Though hardly a great film, Battles of Chief Pontiac deserves some credit for its sympathetic portrayal of the Odawa People.  From the start, the film makes clear that everything that the Pontiac does, he does out of self-defense.  Even the most enthusiastic of his warriors, Hawkbill (Larry Chance), is not fighting because he wants to fight but he’s fighting because it is evident that von Weber is not going to leave the Odawa any other choice.  Though the small pox-ridden blankets were actually given to a different tribe, just the fact that Battles of Chief Pontiac acknowledges that it happened sets it apart from many other B-movies of the period.  Though not a Native American himself, Lon Chaney, Jr. gives a surprisingly dignified performance as Pontiac and he doesn’t allow the character to become a caricature.  Again, that alone is enough to set Battles of Chief Pontiac apart from a lot of the other films of the period.

Battles of Chief Pontiac still cheats by laying the blame on the Hessians, the German mercenaries who, historically, were not even present in North America until they were hired by the British during the American Revolution, which happened ten years after Pontiac’s siege of Fort Detroit.  Berry Kroeger plays Von Weber as if he was a high-ranking Gestapo officer who somehow found himself in the 18th Century.  By making Von Weber the villain, the film lets the British off the hook.  The only mistakes that the British officers make in Battles of Chief Pontiac is that they trust a German and fail to listen to the advice of the all-American Lex Barker.

Battles of Chief Pontiac has a narrator who sounds like he would have been better suited for an educational filmstrip about hygiene and its epic ambitions are thwarted by its low-budget.  There’s a not very interesting love story between McIntire and a white woman (Helen Westcott) who is being held prisoner by the Odawa.  The movie’s intentions go a long way towards making up for the flaws but they can’t do all the work.  At least, Barker, Chaney, and Kroeger manage to keep thing interesting.

What Could Have Been: The Godfather Part III

If only Tom Hagen had returned….

Recently, when asked about The Godfather Part III‘s somewhat lackluster reputation, director Francis Ford Coppola said that the biggest mistake that Paramount made was refusing to meet Robert Duvall’s salary demands.  While Duvall wasn’t demanding to be paid as much as Al Pacino, he still felt that their salaries should be “comparable.”  Paramount, who had already gone through a lot of protracted negotiations to get Coppola, Pacino, and Diane Keaton to agree to do the film, disagreed.  Originally, Coppola had planned for Duvall’s Tom Hagen to be a major part of Godfather Part III.  When Duvall refused to return, the film had to be reimagined.

Coppola’s right.  There’s a lot that I do like about The Godfather Part III but it’s undoubtedly a flawed film.  (It’s a good gangster film but it never feels like a worthy follow-up to the films that came before it.)  And one of the major problems with the film is that Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone doesn’t have anyone with whom he can really confide.  Kay (Diane Keaton) holds him at arm’s length for most of the film.  Connie (Talia Shire) is too busy scheming and plotting on her own.  The rest of the family — Mary (Sofia Coppola), Vincent (Andy Garcia), and Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) — are too young to truly understand the sins of the past.  If Tom Hagen had been in the film, Michael would have had someone to whom he could relate.  He would have had an equal.  Hagen’s absence is felt far more than Paramount expected it would be.  They should have paid Duvall his five million.

(For his part, Duvall has defended his salary demands by saying that the only reason anyone was making Godfather Part III was for the money so why shouldn’t he get paid?  And again, Duvall has a point….)

Salud, you bastards.

Of course, for a long time, it seemed like The Godfather Part III would never be made.  After The Godfather Part II swept the 1974 Academy Awards and proved wrong everyone who felt that it would fail, Paramount wanted a sequel.  The only problem was that Coppola and Pacino both said they wouldn’t return.  And, after Coppola disappeared into the jungle for several years and reportedly went mad directing Apocalypse Now, Paramount wasn’t quite sure that they wanted him to return either.

As unthinkable as it may seem now, it was originally quite probable that The Godfather Part III would have featured neither Pacino nor Coppola.  Between 1975 and 1988, several different scripts and treatments were written for a possible Part III.  Many of them opened with Michael either dying or already dead and his son, Anthony, taking over the family business.  Several of the scripts imagined Sonny’s son, Santino, waging war against Anthony and Tom Hagen (yep, Tom again) being forced to take a side.  In the 70s, many of the scripts featured the Mafia working with the CIA to take out Castro and there were more than few that suggested the Corleones were responsible for the Kennedy assassinations.  As the 70s gave way to the 80s, the scripts started to deal with the Corleones getting involved in the drug trade and going to war with the South American drug cartels.  Think of it as The Godfather vs. Scarface, which would have actually been an intereting concept if they could have gotten Al Pacino to return as both Michael Corleone and Tony Montana.  These scripts all reflected the concerns of the time in which they were written but, reportedly, none of them felt like a Godfather movie.  The idea that The Godfather was meant to be the story of a family as much as a story about organized crime was frequently missed by those who tried to stop into the shoes of Coppola and Puzo.

Over the years, with Coppola saying that he wouldn’t return under any circumstances, Paramount considered a lot of different directors as a successor.  Among those who were considered over the years:  Martin Scorsese, Costa-Gavras, James Bridges, Robert Benton, Michael Mann, Philip Kaufman, Alan Pakula, Warren Beatty, Sidney Lumet, Lewis Carlino, and Michael Cimino.  (Scorsese seems like the obvious choice out of that list but, personally, I would love to see what Michael Mann would have done with the Corleones.)  Sylvester Stallone was also apparently interested in both directing and playing the role of Anthony Corleone.  (John Travolta, whom Stallone directed in Staying Alive, was another frequently mentioned Anthony.)  It probably came closer to happening than most people are willing to admit.

Still, it wasn’t until 1989 that The Godfather Part III finally went into production and, as Duvall said, it was all for the money.  Paramount needed money.  Pacino needed money.  Coppola, after a string of flops and several financial setbacks, definitely needed the money.  Coppola wanted to present the film as being an “epilogue” as opposed to a direct sequel.  Paramount was probably correct when they argued that people don’t pay money to watch epilogues.  They pay money for sequels.

The eventual script, by Coppola and Mario Puzo, focused on the forbidden relationship between Sonny’s illegitimate son, Vincent, and Michael’s daughter, Mary.  As written, Mary was supposed to be 23 years old and savvy about the ways of the Corleone family.  Vincent, meanwhile, was a 31 year-old, out-of-control street criminal who, under Michael’s tutelage, became a refined gangster over the course of the film.  We all know that Vincent was eventually played by Andy Garcia while 18 year-old Sofia Coppola was cast, at the last minute, as Mary.  For all the criticism that Francis Ford Coppola took for casting his inexperienced daughter in a role that she was too young for, just imagine the critical reaction if Coppola had followed Paramount’s wishes and cast Madonna.

Yes, Madonna was Paramount’s suggestion for Mary and Coppola was interested enough to film a screen test with her.  Acting opposite of Madonna was Robert De Niro, who was interested in playing Vincent!  Though De Niro was in his 40s, he argued that he could still pass for 31 and, having played Vito in Part II, De Niro was intrigued with the idea of playing his own grandson.  However, the screen tests did not convince anyone.  Both Madonna and De Niro were determined to be too old for the roles.  De Niro went on to do Goodfellas and The Awakening instead.

The first choice for Vincent was reportedly Alec Baldwin but, for reasons unknown, Baldwin turned down the role.  (Baldwin was also an early possibility for Henry Hill in Goodfellas.)  Matt Dillon, Vincent Spano, Kevin Anderson, and Luke Perry all tested for the role.  Val Kilmer, Nicolas Cage, Charlie Sheen, and Billy Zane were all considered at one point or another.  The studio pushed Coppola to pick Tom Cruise.  In the end, Coppola went with Andy Garcia.  Garcia received his only Oscar nomination for playing Vincent and his performance is one of the highlights of the film.  Still, Nicolas Cage as Vincent is a fascinating idea.

With Madonna out of the running, Coppola offered the role of Mary to Julia Roberts but Roberts was committed to Pretty Woman.  A television actress named Rebecca Schaeffer was also highly considered but she was shot and killed by an obsessed fan on the same night that she received the script.  Bridget Fonda, Linda Fiorentino, Laura San Giacomo, Annabella Sciorra, and Trini Alvarado were all considered but, in the end, Winona Ryder was selected for the role.  Ryder flew out to Rome to do the film and there’s some debate as to what happened next.  Ryder has said that she arrived in Italy exhausted after having done two previous films back-to-back.  Other reports have said that Ryder had a nervous breakdown in Rome.  Either way, her then-boyfriend, Johnny Depp, requested that she leave the film and return to the States and Ryder did just that.

Reportedly, after Ryder left the film, the role was again offered to Julia Roberts and Roberts again turned it down to focus on Pretty Woman.  At the time, Sofia Coppola happened to be visiting her father in Rome.  Sofia had done a little modeling and had appeared in a few of her father’s films, always in small roles.  She had also co-written her father’s segment of New York Stories.  Francis announced that Sofia would be playing Mary and, with the studio desperate for The Godfather Part III to be ready in time for a Christmas release in 1990, Paramount had little choice but to go along.  The role was rewritten for Sofia.  Mary became a far more innocent and naïve character, sometimes to the point of implausibility.  Sofia, who is one of my favorite directors, has taken a lot of criticism for her performance over the years.  Personally, I think she was pushed into a no-win situation.  She was an inexperienced actress, stuck with a hastily rewritten character and all the worst lines.  Plus, making out with Andy Garcia while her Dad watched from a few feet away had to be awkward.  On the plus side, Sofia’s hair was very pretty in Godfather Part III.

As for the rest of the cast, Joe Spinell was originally meant to return as Willi Cicci but Spinnel died before filming began.  Cicci’s character was transformed into Joey Zasa, New York’s best-dressed gangster.  Dennis Farina, Mickey Rourke, and John Turturro were all considered for Zasa.  The role went to Joe Mantegna, who had a lot of fun with the part.  I’ve always felt one of Part III’s biggest mistakes was killing of Joey Zasa too early in the film.  None of the film’s other villain quite have Zasa’s style.

Virginia Madsen and Diane Lane wee both considered for the role of Grace Hamilton, the photojournalist who has a memorable one night stand with Vincent.  After it was decided that she wouldn’t play Mary, Madonna was also briefly considered.  In the end, the role went to another potential Mary, Bridget Fonda.

For Archbishop Gilday, the corrupt Vatican banker, many international stars were considered.  Presumably, Gilday’s nationality would have changed depending on who got the role.  Vittorio Gassman, Phillipe Noiret, Gian Maria Volonte, Yves Montand, Marcello Mastroianni, and Albert Finney were all possibilities before the role went to Donal Donnelly.

Many of those who were considered for the Archbishop were also considered for the role of Pope John Paul I.  Vittorio Gassman, Yves Montand, and Michel Piccoli were all considered.  The role went to Raf Vallone, who was also considered for the role of Don Vito in the first Godfather.

Finally, there was Don Altobello.  Altobello was the latest former Corleone ally to try to betray Michael.  Frank Sinatra, whose offense at being used as the model for Johnny Fontane in Part One was legendary, was reportedly interested in the role.  Timothy Carey, who was considered for both Luca Brasi and Hyman Roth in Parts One and Two, was a possibility until he suffered a stroke.  In the end, Coppola went with Eli Wallach.

As for Tom Hagen, he was gone.  He was written out of the film and described as having died off-screen.  However, Coppola brought in a replacement lawyer.  B.J. Harrison was played by George Hamilton.  Unfortunately, Harrison was never as close to Michael as Hagen had been.  It’s a shame because Godfather Part III definitely could have used a bit more George Hamilton.

Godfather Part III was released in December of 1990.  It did well at the box office.  It received a number of Oscar nominations.  As a film, The Godfather Part III is heavily flawed but, when it works, it really does work.  It may not live up to the standard set by the first two Godfathers but then again, what does?  I recently watched Coppola’s re-edit of Part Three, the Godfather Coda.  It actually is an improvement.  There aren’t any added scenes but the new version does considerably tighten up the film’s pace.  The opera at the end no longer drags on forever.  Godfather Part III may not be great but it’s not terrible, either.  It’s better than it’s reputation.

Still, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been.  If only Tom Hagen had come back….

Book Review: Monster: Living Off The Big Screen by John Gregory Dunne

First published in 1997, Monster is a memoir about working in Hollywood.  It follows eight years in the life of John Gregory Dunne (who wrote the book) and his wife, Joan Didion.  While Dunne (who passed in 2003) and Didion (who passed away a few weeks ago) were best-known as essayists and novelists, they also had a hand in writing a number of films.  As such, it shouldn’t be surprising that, along with being a portrait of Hollywood, Monster is also the story of the making of one particular film.

That said, Monster is not the story of the making of a great film.

It’s also not the story of the making of a terrible film.

Instead, it’s the story of the making of a thoroughly mediocre and forgettable film.  The film in question is Up Close and Personal, which still pops up on HBO occasionally.  Up Close and Personal tells the story of a self-righteous news producer — a gentleman with the laughable name of of Warren Justice — who finds and grooms an aspiring reporter named Tally (Michelle Pfeiffer).  While Warren (played by Robert Redford) teaches her how to work the camera and deliver the news, they fall in love.  Then Tally’s career skyrockets, Warren’s career goes downhill, and eventually Warren ends up dying.  Boo hoo.

Monster tells the story of how Dunne and Didion were originally hired to adapt a biography of Jessica Savitch, a real-life anchorwoman who eventually got hooked on cocaine, who was physically abused by her mentor, and who eventually ended up dying in a car crash.  Realizing that real life might be too depressing to generate a hit film, the executives at Disney instead decided that they wanted Dunne and Didion to turn Savitch’s Hellish life story into a sentimental romance.  The drug abuse was dropped.  Savitch’s death was abandoned.  Her abusive boyfriend was transformed into the saintly character of — snicker — Warren Justice.

(Dunne actually devotes a good deal of space to explaining why they named the character Warren Justice.  Warren was a good “everyman” name and Dunne was apparently under the belief that Justice was a common surname in the South because he knew someone from Florida whose last name was Justice.  The logic is understandable, if flawed.  I’ve lived in the South almost my entire life and I’ve never met anyone named Justice.  Still, writers of Dunne and Didion’s caliber should have known better than to try to get away with such an easily mocked name.)

For eight years, Dunne and Didion write and rewrite Up Close and Personal and, along the way, a large number of Hollywood figures are attached to the film.  Ultimately, it’s directed by a fellow named Jon Avent, who were told has a strong ego.  Actually, the entire book is full of people who have strong egos.  Scott Rudin, for example, is in the book, demanding that that Dunne and Didion focus on appealing to as wide an audience as possible.  “It’s about two movie stars,” Rudin explains when Dunne worries that the film doesn’t actually have anything to say.

While Up Close and Personal is going through the pains of production, Dunne and Didion work on a number of other studio films, few of which come to production and none of which sound like they would have been particularly good had they been produced.  Ultimatum is a thriller about a terrorist plot.  Dunne and Didion correctly realize that the title needs to be changed to something less generic but their proposed replacement, Ploot, sounds like the title for a film about a flatulent goblin.  A bit more intriguing is their attempt to write a serious movie about aliens for the infamous producer Don Simpson.  Simpson comes across as being savvy but unfocused, which is actually a pretty good description of just about everyone in the book.  The Hollywood of Monster is a town and an industry controlled by former outsiders who are determined to reinvent themselves as tough guys.

And Dunne did a pretty good job of capturing the town.  The book is written with a dry wit and, as acidic as many of the passages are, Dunne doesn’t let himself off the hook.  He’s as open about his role in the making of a thoroughly forgettable film as he is about everyone else’s role.  There’s little concern for art or higher truth to be found in Dunne’s Hollywood.  Instead, the entire town is a monster.

It’s a good book and a memorable portrait of the American film industry in the 1990s.

Here Are The 2021 Nominees Of The Chicago Indie Critics!

The Chicago Indie Critics have announced their nominees for the best of 2021!  The winners will be announced on January 8th.

Personally, I like the fact that they give an award for both Best Independent Film and Best Studio Film.  I sometimes think that the Oscars should do the same.  Then I remember how the Oscars manage to screw up nearly every cool idea and I change my mind.

BEST INDEPENDENT FILM (budgets under $20 million)

BEST STUDIO FILM (budgets over $20 million)




Paul Thomas Anderson – LICORICE PIZZA
Kenneth Branagh – BELFAST
Pablo Larrain – SPENCER
Edson Oda – NINE DAYS

A HERO – Asghar Farhadi
NINE DAYS – Edson Oda
PIG – Michael Sarnoski

CODA – Sian Heder
DRIVE MY CAR – Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Takamasa Oe
PASSING – Rebecca Hall

Nicolas Cage – PIG
Benedict Cumberbatch – THE POWER OF THE DOG
Andrew Garfield – TICK, TICK… BOOM!
Denzel Washington – THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH

Jessica Chastain – THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE
Emilia Jones – CODA
Kristen Stewart – SPENCER
Tessa Thompson – PASSING

Ben Affleck – THE LAST DUEL
Colman Domingo – ZOLA
Troy Kotsur – CODA

Kirsten Dunst – THE POWER OF THE DOG
Aunjanue Ellis – KING RICHARD
Marlee Matlin – CODA
Ruth Negga – PASSING








“Just Look Up” – DON’T LOOK UP
“No Time to Die” – NO TIME TO DIE
“So May We Start” – ANNETTE




Honors the work of an artist who truly pushes the boundaries of the medium in terms of form and content
Paul Thomas Anderson, filmmaker
Rebecca Hall, filmmaker
Ryusuke Hamaguchi, filmmaker
Sian Heder, filmmaker
Lin-Manuel Mirandafilmmaker

Given to a person whose work has had a positive impact on society
Rebecca Fons, Director of Programming – Gene Siskel Film Center
Rebecca Hall, filmmaker
Ryan Oestreich, General Manager – Music Box Theatre
Steven Spielberg, filmmaker
Jill Wheeler, Director of Publicity and Promotions – Allied Global Marketing

Film Review: Monster (dir by Patty Jenkins)

Aileen Wurnos was often described as being America’s first female serial killer.

Wurnos was born in 1956, in Rochester, Michigan.  From the start, her life was a mess.  Her father was both a diagnosed schizophernic and a sex offender who was incarcerated when Aileen was born and who hung himself in his jail cell when Aileen was 13.  (Aileen reportedly never met him.)  Aileeen’s mother abandoned her children when Aileen was four, leaving Aileen and her younger brother to be raised by their alcoholic grandparents.  Aileen later said that she was regularly beaten by both grandparents and sexually abused by her grandfather.  Aileen also said that she spent her youth dreaming of being famous and being loved, like Marilyn Monroe.

By the time she was eleven, Aileen was already having sex in return for food, cigarettes, and drugs.  She was pregnant at 14, which she later said was the result of being raped by a friend of her grandfather’s.  She gave up her son for adoption and dropped out of school when she was 15, the same year that her grandmother died of live failure.  Kicked out of the house shortly afterwards, Aileen survived through sex work and lived a semi-nomadic existence.  While other people her age were starting high school and looking forward to the future, Aileen was living in the woods and going for days without food.

Aileen Wurnos and her husband

By 1976, she had hitchhiked her way down to Florida and her life briefly seemed to turn around when she met and married a wealthy 69 year-old man named Lewis Fell.  Fell was president of a yacht club and prominent enough that his marriage to Aileen was announced in the society pages.  That marriage didn’t last, however.  Aileen was arrested and served with a restraining order for reportedly beating Fell in much the same way that she later said her grandfather beat her.  They were divorced within weeks and, for the next 13 years, Aileen’s life consisted of one arrest after another.  She returned to sex work, hitchhiking on the highways.  With her looks fading due to her lifestyle, Aileen resorted to carrying around a picture of her adopted sister’s children, showing it to potential customers and telling them that she needed money so that she could go to Miami and be with them, in an attempt to play on her customer’s sympathy.  Wurnos was repeatedly raped and beaten by the men who picked her up.  By the time she came to fame, she was suffering from PTSD and, in her own words, hated the world and men especially.

Wurnos shot and killed at least seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990.  At her trial, she claimed that every shooting was self-defense.  She said that she had been raped and nearly killed by her first victim, who had previously be arrested for rape.  She went on to say that all of her subsequent victims had been planning on raping but sh shot them first.  Once she was on death row and waiting to be executed, she changed her story several times and said that only the first of the shootings was in self-defense and that the rest were simple robberies.  The men, she explained, picked her up.  She took their money and then she shot them because she didn’t want them reporting her to the police.  Of course, she then later told documentarian Nick Broomfield that all of the killings actually were self-defense but that she changed her story because she hated Death Row and she was eager to die.  There were a lot of stories when it came to Wurnos and determining what was true was often difficult.

That said, while Wurnos was undoubtedly a female serial killer, I doubt that she was our first.  It depends on what you consider a serial killer to be, with some FBI profilers claiming that Wurnos was unique in that she eventually grew to enjoy killing and that she set out each night looking for someone to kill.  That said,  throughout history, there have been stories about women who married and murdered multiple men, the infamous black widows.  Between 1884 and 1908, Belle Gunness murdered at least 14 people in Illinois and Minnesota.  Working with her boyfriend, Martha Beck murdered an estimated 20 people in the late 40s.  If so inclined, one could go all the way back to ancient Rome and read about the poisoner Lucasta, whose victims reportedly included at least one emperor.

So, no, Aileen Wurnos was not the first female serial killer but she was the first one to come to prominence after the term was coined.  She was the first well-known female serial killer of the post-Ted Bundy era.  And because she also committed her crimes at the dawn of the 24-hour media cycle, she achieved a level of fame that was denied to Gunness, Beck, and even Lucasta.  Aileen held press conferences as she waited for her execution date.  She made the news by alternatively praising and cursing the people who had arrested her and sent her to Death Row.  She yelled at judges and threatened reporters.  She was, for lack of a better term, good television.  She became an icon to some, a sex worker who turned the tables on the potential killers who picked her up.  She was also the subject of two documentaries from Nick Broomfield.

That was how I first found out about her.  2003’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer used to air on HBO frequently.  The film followed the final days of Wurnos’s life and featured an interview with her in which she went from being surprisingly lucid and articulate to being frighteningly unhinged.  While a sympathetic Broomfield tried to get her to discuss the circumstances that led to her committing the murders, Wurnos ranted about how the prison was using “sonic pressure” to control her mind.  In 2002, when Wurnos was executed, her last words were to compare herself to the “mother ship” from Independence Day and to promise that she would return.  With her wild eyes, rotting teeth, and unpredictable anger, Wurnos was frightening but, at the same time, there were brief moments of clarity where Wurnos seemed to understand the gravity of both what she had done and her current situation.

Charlize Theron as Aileen Wurnos

The same year that Broomfield released his documentary and a year after Wurnos was executed, a film called Monster was released.  The feature directorial debut of Petty Jenkins, Monster starred Charlize Theron as Aileen Wurnos.  Theron, who also signed on as a co-producer, would win her first Oscar for her performance as Wurnos and, indeed, when the film was first released, the majority of the attention centered on how the glamorous Theron transformed herself into the not-so glamorous Aileen Wurnos.  Theron famously gained weight and wore prosthetic teeth in order to resemble Wurnos but, as anyone who has seen Broomfield’s documentaries can tell you, she also captured Wurnos’s odd speech patterns and her jittery physical movements.  Theron perfectly recreated Wurnos’s trademark wide smile, which somehow managed to be both vulnerable and menacing at the same time.  Theron deserved the praise that she got for her performance and she certainly deserved to win that Oscar.  And yet, so much attention was paid to Theron’s performance and her physical transformation, that the overall film itself was a bit overshadowed.  Along with being one of the saddest films ever made, Monster is a portrait of life on the fringes and of existence in the shadows of conventional American society.

The film opens with Wurnos siting underneath a highway overpass and staring down at a loaded gun, debating whether or not she should just end it all.  Occasionally, she provides narration, discussing how she eventually came to find herself homeless and struggling to survive.  Her narration frequently switches from being insightful and darkly comedic to being angry and bitter, often in the same sentence.  Deciding not to kill herself, she instead goes to a gay bar when she meets another outsider, Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). Selby awkwardly flirts, telling Aileen that she’s the most beautiful woman in the bar.  Aileen replies that she’s “not into women.”  (Of course, she also lies and claims that she’s only in the bar because her truck broke down and she’s just waiting for a ride.)  Yet, before long, Selby and Aileen are in love.

Selby was a heavily fictionalized version of Aileen’s real girlfriend, who didn’t want to have anything to do with Monster and who requested that her real name not be used in the film.  In the film’s reimagining of the story, Selby has been exiled to Florida from Ohio, rejected by her religious father.  Selby lives with her homophobic aunt but yearns for escape.  That’s what Aileen provides for her and, to an extent, Selby provides the same thing to Aileen.  There’s an unexpected sweetness to the early scenes between Aileen and Selby, albeit a sweetness that it continually undercut by the fact that we know we’re watching a movie about a serial killer.  We watch as they go roller skating together and as they share their first kiss afterwards.  We watch as they run off together and as they get their first place together and yet, at the same time, we also watch as Selby pressures Aileen to continue “hooking” so that Aileen will have enough money to support the two of them.  As played by Ricci, Selby is a character about whom many viewers will have mixed feelings.  When she first appears, it’s hard not to have sympathy for her.  She seems to be a naïve outsider.  But, as the film continues, she sometimes reveals herself to be just as manipulative as Aileen.  Selby may claim to be shocked when she discovers that Aileen has been killing and robbing the men who pick her up but, just like Aileen, we don’t quite buy it.  Selby knew what was going on, even if she wasn’t willing to admit it to herself.

In the film, Aileen’s first murder is presented as having been committed in self-defense.  The man is a rapist and a sadist and was clearly planning to kill Aileen once he was done with her.  Again, as portrayed in both the film and Wurnos’s version of events, he unquestionably got what he deserved.  With one notable exception, Aileen’s subsequent murders are presented a bit more ambiguously.  The majority of the men that Aileen meets are threatening, even if she shoots most of them before they get a chance to try anything.  One can understand why some felt that the film was a bit too sympathetic to Aileen while, at the same time, also acknowledging that the men who would pick up a hitchhiker and expect sex in return are not exactly going to be the greatest group of guys.

Only Aileen’s final victim is presented as being a sympathetic figure.  Played by the great Scott Wilson, he picks up Aileen just to get her out of the rain, refuses her offer of sex, and says that he and his wife would be willing to help her get to wherever she needs to go.  He picks Aileen up for her own safety but, when Aileen tries to get out of the car, he sees her gun and Aileen kills him to keep him quiet.  It’s a powerful scene, brilliantly acted by both Theron and Wilson and it’s hard to watch.  (It’s also debatable whether or not it actually happened, which is the danger when it comes to making a movie about someone like Aileen Wurnos.)  It’s this scene that shows how far Wurnos has gone.  “You don’t need to do this,” he tells her and Wurnos knows that he’s right but, by this point, she’s beyond going back.

The only other truly and unconditionally kind character in the film is Thomas (Bruce Dern), a former biker who allows Aileen to keep her things in his storage locker and who is perhaps the only character to really care about Aileen as a human being.  (Even Selby mostly views Aileen as a way to escape her current life.)  Thomas is a Vietnam vet, one who suffers from PTSD and who, as a result, understands Aileen’s anger and mood swings.  Dern doesn’t get a lot of screen time but he’s a welcome presence whenever he shows up.  In the end, though, Aileen knows that even Thomas’s kindness can’t save her from what’s going to happen.

As I said before, it’s a sad film.  It’s always watchable because Theron, Ricci, and Dern all give such good performances but it’s still a film that’ll leave you shaken.  It’s a trip to the fringes, the corners of existence where there are no exits beyond death.  Those who have criticized the film for taking Wurnos at her word do have a point but, at the same time, Theron is often as frightening as she is sympathetic.  The viewer may understand why Wurnos does what she does but they still would not want Wurnos anywhere near them.  I imagine that, for every viewer who sympathizes with Wurnos, an equal number will breathe a sigh of relief at the knowledge that Wurnos was subsequently executed by the state of Florida.  Myself, I’ve always been against the death penalty, regardless of who is sitting on death row or what their motives may have been.  At the same time, I can understand why others support it.  It’s a frightening world and the death penalty allows people to feel that there are consequences for committing the worst of crimes.

Monster was a critical and, somewhat surprisingly, a commercial hit.  Theron won an Oscar and proved herself to be a serious actress.  (One doubts Theron would have ever played Furiosa if she hadn’t first played Aileen Wurnos.)  Though Patty Jenkins were struggle to get several other projects going, it wasn’t until 2017 that she would make a second film.  That film, of course, would be Wonder Woman, a film that was as joyous as Monster was dark.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Sergio Leone Edition

Sergio Leone (1929 — 1989)

4 Or More Shots From 4 Or More Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

93 years ago today, Sergio Leone was born in Rome, Italy.  The son of actor/screenwriter Vincenzo Leone and silent actress Edvige Valcarenghi, Sergio was born into the Italian film industry.  He began his career in the post-war rebuilding period, working as an assistant to Vittorio De Sica and, as an assistant director, for American films that were shot in Italy.  (Albeit uncredited, he worked on two Oscar-nominated Biblical epics, Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur.)

After making his directorial debut with The Colossus of Rhodes, Leone went on to direct the films that would change the face of international cinema.  Though he was hardly the first director of Spaghetti westerns, he was was the first to achieve far-reaching acclaim.  With the Dollars Trilogy, he made Clint Eastwood a star and Eastwood has often said that the majority of what he knows about directing, he learned from working with Leone and later Don Siegel.  Leone went on to direct the brilliant Once Upon A Time In The West and Once Upon A Time in America, two epic visions of American history that, sadly, were not initially treated well by their distributors.

Though Leone is only credited with directing eight films, his influence cannot be underestimated.  As both a visual artist and a cultural and political commentator, his films continue to influence directors to this day.

For that reason, it’s time for….

4 Shots From 4 Sergio Leone Films

For A Few Dollars More (1965, dir by Sergio Leone, DP: Massimo Dallamano)

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966, dir by Sergio Leone, DP: Tonino Delli Colli)

Once Upon A Time In The West (1968, dir by Sergio Leone, DP: Tonino Delli Colli)

Once Upon A Time In America (1984, dir by Sergio Leone, DP: Tonino Delli Colli)