Tag Archives: Jack Nicholson

The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Devil comes to town.

Based on the John Updike novel of the same name, the story centers on three single women (Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer) living in the town of Eastwick, Rhode Island who are also witches, but don’t yet realize it. All three want to meet up with the man of their dreams, which ushers in Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson). He is a rich playboy that buys the town’s landmark home the stately Lennox Mansion. The three women are initially seduced by his powers only to realize later that he is actually the devil incarnate and spend the rest of the time conjuring up a spell that will send him back to where he came from.

After achieving so much success with The Road Warrior franchise Australian director George Miller decided to take a stab at something completely different, but had to deal with studio politics during the production, which made the final product disjointed. However, despite an array of confusing plot points the offbeat elements are enough to hold your attention and keep things interesting.

The creative special effects add an imaginative flair, but tend to get overdone. I enjoyed the scene where Veronica Cartwright vomits out cherry seeds all over her house, which leaves an indelible impression, but then Nicholson does the same thing later inside a church where it becomes redundant and gross. Watching a floating tennis ball defying gravity is amusing, but not needed. This scene, where all four get together to play a game of tennis, should’ve instead focused on the underlying tensions between the characters, which would’ve given the movie some needed nuance.

I enjoyed Sarandon, who goes from being a repressed nerdette to sexual vamp, but overall the efforts of the game cast are wasted as there’s not enough distinction between the women’s personalities making them seem almost like the same person. The only female that is distinct and memorable is Cartwright who’s campy, over-the-top portrayal of a paranoid religious woman hits-the-mark and should’ve been enough to give her more screen time and at least one scene where she confronts Nicholson directly.

I would’ve preferred also that the women been aware right from the start that they were witches, which would’ve made them immediate adversaries to Nicholson instead of these dopey pawns that passively allow him to seduce them one-by-one in long drawn-out segments that become quite strained. In contrast Nicholson could’ve preyed on the other women in town while these same witches spent their time coming up with ways to stop him and thus creating more of a theatrical battle.

Nicholson is great, but his character like with the others is poorly etched. At the beginning he’s a conniving player who possesses the ability to manipulate these women almost seamlessly, but then during the second half this all changes, but with no clear explanation as to why. His speech though inside a church expounding on man’s ever daunting task to tap into the female’s psychic is priceless:

“Do you think God knew what he was doing when he created women, or do you think it was just another one of his minor mistakes like tidal waves?…If it was a mistake maybe we can do something about it; find a cure, then a vaccine, build-up our immune systems.”

The biggest issue though is that the film needed to be genre specific and played more like a horror movie with dark comical undertones instead of a serene/hybrid comedy. The New England setting is picturesque, but not right for this type of story. A better location would’ve been a town that was mostly cloudy and gloomy while containing buildings that were old and gothic, which would’ve helped to create an eerie atmosphere that is otherwise sorely lacking.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: June 12, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 58Minutes

Rated R

Director: George Miller

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Ironweed (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Life on the streets.

It’s the 1930’s and Francis Phelan (Jack Nicholson) has been living on the streets for over two decades. At one time he was a promising baseball player with a bright future, but then he accidently dropped his infant son and killed him. Dealing with the guilt and shame of it turned him into an alcoholic who roams the cold streets of Albany, New York looking for odds jobs and handouts when he can. He seeks out his lover Helen (Meryl Streep) for companionship and the two share a bottle of booze and their bitterness at the world that is ambivalent to their desperate situation.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by William Kennedy, who also wrote the screenplay and is directed by Hector Babenco who received wide claim for directing Pixote a film that dealt with homelessness in Brazil. This film is without question one of the best to tackle the lives of street people. Most films tend to treat the subject rather timidly and only analyze the topic from a distance (i.e. having a side character who is homeless, or maybe a main character who is temporarily on the streets), but this film engrosses the viewer completely into the homeless lifestyle while supplying absolutely no letup to their bleak existence. The result is a fascinating and revealing journey that shows how complex and multi-dimensional these people actually are while exposing every facet of the homeless experience including the indignities and dehumanization that they must face on a daily basis.

The casting is interesting particularly for the fact that both Nicholson and Streep had just starred together in Heartburn a year earlier playing a couple on the completely opposite side of the socio-economic scale. I commend Nicholson for tackling a challenging role that goes completely against his persona as normally he plays flamboyant types with over-the-top personalities, so it’s great seeing him take on a humble one who feels and acts like a complete miniscule to the world around him. However, the scenes where he interacts with the ghostly visions of people he has murdered in the past does not come off as successfully as it could’ve. The imagery is interesting, but the fact that he had played a character already that dealt with similar types of ghostly visions in The Shining causes the viewer to think back too much to that film and takes them out of this one.

Streep is outstanding and her constant ability to completely submerse herself into her characters and take on different accents with an amazing authenticity never ceases to amaze me. She really looks the part too by not only wearing no make-up, but having her teeth stained and darkened to effectively give off that decayed look. I’m genuinely floored at how many times most films neglect to do this. Actors portraying characters in destitute environments, or from the old west, may convey the down-and-out or rugged look physically, but their teeth still always look great when in reality they should’ve been in as bad of shape or worse as the rest of their bodies.

The supporting cast is good but they have little to do, which includes Fred Gwynne who appears briefly as a bartender. Carroll Baker though is excellent as Nicholson’s ex-wife. She was a blonde beauty that burst onto the scene in the ‘50s and was billed as the next Marilyn Monroe, but her acting ability quickly became suspect and by the ‘60s she was relegated to low budget B-movies and European productions, but in the ‘80s she made a Hollywood comeback in supporting roles and her appearance here was clearly her best performance and proves that she really could act. Margaret Whitton is also a standout as she takes part in one of the film’s few lighthearted moments as an eccentric woman who is prone to histrionic fainting spells and walking outside without any clothes.

The film though does suffer from a few too many dramatic peaks, which includes having two of Nicholson’s homeless friends die almost simultaneously, which only helps to lessen the effect by squeezing out more drama than it needs to, but overall this is a top notch effort where every scene and utterance rings true.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1987

Runtime: 2Hours 23Minutes

Rated R

Director: Hector Babenco

Studio: TriStar Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Reds (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He fights for socialism.

The film centers on the life of John Reed (Warren Beatty) who was a socialist activist that covered the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and later published his account in ‘The Ten Days That Shook the World’.  He became instrumental in forming the Communist Labor Party of America and marrying noted feminist Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) before returning to Russia and eventually dying there becoming only one of three Americans buried at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.

The project was a labor of love for writer/star/director/producer Warren Beatty who first became inspired by Reed’s story in the mid-‘60s and spent over15 years battling to get it produced. Unlike most actors-turned-directors Beatty was notoriously disliked by his cast and crew for demanding many different takes for even the simplest of scenes forcing his friend Gene Hackman, who agreed to appear in the film for free, to do 100 takes to convey only a few brief lines. Beatty also strangely decided to keep the camera running continuously even between takes resulting in three million feet of footage that weighed five tons to ship and if played continuously on the screen would’ve resulted in taking two and a half weeks to complete.

The story is okay and moderately compelling, but I felt too much emphasis was placed on Reed’s and Bryant’s relationship. Supposedly this was a biography on a famous historical figure, but the story gets lodged more on the rocky, unconventional marriage aspect and seemed at times to be more focused on Keaton’s character than Beatty’s.

I was also confused as to what exactly had Reed done that was so special, or elicit us to sit through such a long movie about him. In a normal epic the main character is instrumental in causing the events that we see, but here the protagonist is nothing more than a sideline observer with no direct control on what goes on. Technically he doesn’t change anything and the film is just one long look at how whatever he strived either fizzled or got corrupted before he eventually dies in virtual obscurity, which hardly seems inspiring or worth the time to watch.

The supporting cast helps significantly particularly Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill who has an affair with Bryant. It’s always interesting to seeing Nicholson play a subdued character since he’s usually so flamboyant and Jack makes the most of it, which helps give the story a little extra edge. Maureen Stapleton won the Academy Award for supporting actress even though her character is only seen sporadically, but she probably deserved the Award either way since she became a victim of Beatty’s overzealous need for multiple takes, which so infuriated her that she apparently screamed ‘Are you out of your fucking mind?” when Beatty demanded that she redo her scene for the 80th  time which got the rest of the crew to cheer their approval.

It’s also fun to see Jerzy Kosinski as the communist politician Grigory Zinoviev. Kosinski was best known for having written the novel ‘Being There’, which inspired the film of the same name, but later he was accused of having plagiarized the story from an earlier Polish novel and it was revealed that many of his other stories were ghost written by assistant editors, which is ironic since his character in the film gets accused by Beatty of having tampered and re-written his speeches and writings.

As a whole it’s adequately done, but the pace ebbs and flows. The interviews with people who actually knew Reed, or were connected to his life in some way are a highlight as is the scene where Reed tries to escape Russia by riding on a hand cart along a train track in the dead of winter, but everything else gets overblown.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 3, 1981

Runtime: 3 Hours 15 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Warren Beatty

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Behind the scenes of Five Easy Pieces (1970)

We celebrate this July 4th by looking back at a iconic American classic ‘Five Easy Pieces’. The film is best known for its memorable scene inside a Denny’s Diner, so I thought it would be fun to show some stills of that scene being filmed, which was in November of 1969 as well as what those same locations look like today. First, here’s a shot of the scene where Jack Nicholson confronts a stubborn waitress (played by Lorna Thayer).

Here’s how that very same booth looks like today:

The film was shot at a Denny’s restaurant in Eugene, Oregon. Here’s some shots of its exterior in 1969:

Here’s a shot of the restaurant today. Surprisingly it hasn’t changed too much:

Here’s a shot of the lighting equipment used for the scene:

Here’s the sign customers saw on the Denny’s door the day the movie was shot.

Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs getting ready to shoot the classic scene:

Here’s Director Bob Rafelson, Karen Black, Lorna Thayer, and Jack Nicholson sitting around the lunch table and rehearsing their lines for the now famous scene:

Kovacs checks the lighting levels as Nicholson and Black prepare:

Getting the boom mike into place:

Here’s a shot of the final scene where Nicholson decides to abandon Black:

And here’s how that location looks like today:

The Fortune (1975)

fortune

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Trying to murder heiress.

Oscar (Jack Nicholson) and Nicky (Warren Beatty) are two inept con men living in the 1920’s who think they’ve come up with the perfect plan for gaining a lot of money by having Oscar marry Fredericka (Stockard Channing) who is set to inherit millions from her father as she is the sole heiress to his fortune.  Unfortunately for them once the wedding is over Fredericka suddenly announces that she plans on donating her entire fortune to charity convincing the two that they must murder her before she does.

I found this to be a highly enjoyable movie and was laughing-out-loud in a lot of places, which is something that I don’t typically do. So it made me surprised to find that there were quite a few people on IMDB that were critical of it, or that it did so poorly at the box office when it was initially released. I admit that for the first hour the script meanders and things don’t really get going until the final 30 minutes when the two try to implement their hair-brained murder attempts, which they hope to make look like a suicide, but instead encounter one unexpected disaster after another.

Two of the funniest moments include the scene where Jack Nicholson walk out onto the wing of a flying airplane and scares Fredericka who is sitting as a passenger inside in a sort of comic spin of the famous ‘Twilight Zone’ episode that starred William Shatner. Another great scene is when Nicky and Oscar put Fredericka’s unconscious body inside a trunk and then try to throw if off a bridge only to inadvertently hold up a long procession of honking cars and angry drivers.

The three leads are in top form and play completely against type here. Beatty, who usually plays laid-back and detached characters, is more cantankerous and belligerent and Nicholson, with his hairstyle resembling that of singer Art Garfunkel’s is very funny as the dimwitted second-banana. Channing looks great in a flapper style hairdo and the segments detailing her desperate attempts at cooking are quite amusing. Florence Stanley is also good in support as the noisy landlord.

The film has the ingredients for a perfect comedy although it will appeal more to those who enjoy their humor on the dark side. The twist ending is kind of clever and the final camera shot that rotates to an almost complete turn is excellent.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 16, 1975

Runtime: 1Hour 28Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Mike Nichols

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

The Raven (1963)

raven 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: The search for Lenore.

Dr. Craven (Vincent Price) is a former sorcerer who one night is visited by a talking raven. The raven is actually Dr. Bedlo (Peter Lorre) who has been turned into a bird by the evil Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff). Craven manages to concoct a potion that allows Bedlo to turn back into his human form and in appreciation he tells Craven that he has seen Lenore (Hazel Court), who Craven was once married to and was thought to be dead, living with Scarabus in his castle. Craven decides to pay Scarabus a visit to see if this is true and brings along his daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess) as well as Bedlo and Bedlo’s son Rexford (Jack Nicholson). When they arrive they are greeted by the conniving wizard who at first denies any wrongdoing, but it soon becomes clear that he is jealous of Craven’s powers and wants to attain them for himself, which leads to a climactic cosmic duel between the two sorcerers.

This film marked the fourth collaboration between writer Richard Matheson and director Roger Corman and for the most part it is an entertaining success. The two apparently had so much fun creating the comic story of ‘The Black Cat’ in Tales of Terror trilogy that they decided to do a feature length horror/comedy that is very loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe poem. Despite being shot in only 15 days the film isn’t as limited by Corman’s usual low budget constraints and I was genuinely surprised how imaginative the special effects where and the overall impressive background sets.

The film’s biggest boost is clearly the three lead actors who are all at their absolute peak. I especially enjoyed Lorre who brazenly steals every scene he is in and ad-libbed many of his funny lines much to the consternation of his co-stars. In fact if Lorre wasn’t in this it wouldn’t have been half as enjoyable. A young Nicholson as his son is equally entertaining and the frosty relationship that the two characters have was apparently a carry-over from how they felt about each other from behind-the-scenes.

Some of the effects are clearly animated, which looks tacky and as the group arrive at Scarabus’ castle one can see that the place is merely a painting matted on the screen. The story also does have its share of lulls, but all of this gets forgiven by the climactic sorcerer’s duel, which is the film’s highlight.

raven

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: January 25, 1963

Runtime: 1Hour 26Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Roger Corman

Studio: American International Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Passenger (1975)

the passenger

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: He steals someone’s identity.

This is a low key drama detailing a world-weary reporter named David (Jack Nicholson) who comes upon a dead man in a hotel room. David is unhappy with his existence and since they closely resemble one another he decides to switch identities with the dead man. He believes that this man lives a jet setting lifestyle, but soon finds that may not be true and that everyone is trying to escape from something.

This film has the artsy flair that is typical of all Michelangelo Antonioni’s films. It tends to be quite evasive as it brings up certain points and then seems to muddle them. It’s made to make you ponder, but has a decidedly downbeat tone. There is no music until the very end, which was a mistake as it gets too quiet at points and one’s mind will eventually wander especially with the lack of strong dramatic interaction. Having some music blended in would certainly have helped the momentum and avoided the rather flat feeling you get when it is all over.

The film is not without its good points and can best be described as a kind of Easy Rider, but more from a world perspective. Like with that film it describes characters trying to escape from a world that will not let them go. I loved the wide variety of exotic locales, which in any other film would symbolize excitement and adventure yet here they become part of the imprisonment. The film though does not take full advantage of its outlets and the sense of detachment that it has eventually rubs off on the viewer.

Nicholson gives a surprisingly non-dynamic performance. Maybe he was just trying to get into his transparent character, but either way it is not riveting. Maria Schneider is interesting only because she has the face of a young girl but the sensibilities of a much older woman.

There are some interesting shots. One features the camera looking out of a barred window from inside a room. Then without taking a single cut the camera moves through the bars, makes a complete turn, and then looks back through the window from the outside. There is also footage of an actual execution of a political prisoner. This certainly will interest the morbid, but it also seems to be a bit sick and disrespectful especially when the camera stays locked onto limp, bullet-riddled body.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: April 9, 1975

Runtime: 2Hours 6Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

Studio: MGM

Available: VHS, DVD

Drive, He Said (1971)

drive he said 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Player doesn’t like coach.

This is one of those movies that shows signs of being a really great movie trying to break out, but never does. It’s about Hector (William Tepper) a college basketball star who is being tugged at different directions by those around him and by society at-large. This creates inner turmoil that leads to outbursts, apathy, and even anti-social behavior.

Tepper as the star isn’t the best of actors. He has a constant blank look and way too much hair. The character he plays has potential. It is nice to see a portrait of an athlete that isn’t one-dimensional sports, but instead shows intelligent and sensitivity to things that go well beyond the court. Yet he is also too self- absorbed and displays a selfish behavior that in most cases would alienate him from his teammates. What is supposed to be betrayed as angst instead comes off as an obnoxious, spoiled college kid. His constant rebellion with his coach (Bruce Dern) doesn’t mesh.

The film makes some good observations and brings up great issues. Unfortunately it ends up becoming diluted. In some ways it should have just stuck with the basketball angle. The camera shots that glides with the action during the games is excellent. Some of the scenes during the practice and some of the locker room segments of Dern coaching the team gives the viewer a good taste of the college basketball experience and makes you want to see more of it. However, incorporating late sixties politics into it only makes it redundant and in this area the film offers no new insight.

The film does have its moments and some of them are even memorable. The best ones involve actor Michael Margotta’s character as a student radical wavering on insanity. His assault on the Karen Black character while inside a large, darkened house is striking both visually and emotionally. The scene where he, while naked, runs into a science lab and releases all sorts of rats, rodents, and reptiles is a sight in itself.

Dern with his glazed stare and intense acting style seems like a natural for the part of the hard-driven coach. It’s too bad the film doesn’t make the most of it, but Black is looking at her best.

Jack Nicholson as a director is not as good as Nicholson the actor although he does show potential, but it doesn’t come together as a whole. The film should best be viewed as a curio or artifact of its era. There is also a surprisingly high amount of male nudity as well as homo-erotic overtones.

drive he said 2

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: June 13, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 35Minutes

Rated R

Director: Jack Nicholson

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD (Region 1 & 2)

The Trip (1967)

the trip

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: He tries some acid.

Jack Nicholson wrote the screenplay to this film which is based loosely experiences he had while taking LSD as well as the break-up of his marriage to actress Sandra Knight. The story centers on Paul (Peter Fonda) a director of TV commercials whose marriage to Sally (Susan Strasberg) is on the rocks. He has a need to ‘find himself’ and seeks help from his friend John (Bruce Dern) who is a self-styled acid guru. John gives Paul some acid while promising that he will stay with him during his drug induced trip. The rest of the film then deals with Paul’s experiences both in his mind and in his dealings with the outside world while he is hallucinating.

To prepare for the film Nicholson, Fonda and Dennis Hopper, who appears in a minor supporting role, all took part in a group LSD trip and the various visions that they experienced are incorporated here. Director Roger Corman also tried LSD at a different time to prepare for the film. The only one not to try it was Dern who was staunchly opposed to recreational drug use and in fact even his character doesn’t take any as evidenced by a scene where everyone is taking a puff of some marijuana and when it gets passed to him he simply passes it to the next person without trying even though everyone else does.

The scenes recreating the acid trip are not all that interesting or imaginative. It’s all pretty much what you would expect with a barrage of artsy colorful designs popping up at the viewer in split second intervals that reminded me very much of looking through a kaleidoscope. The images aren’t coherent, nor meant to be, and become vapid in the process. The scene involving Paul sitting on a merry-go-round while trying to justify his existence to Hopper who is dressed in a devil-like costume gets quite tedious.

Things improve during the second half when John, who promised he would stay at Paul’s side during his trip, ends up leaving him momentarily to retrieve some apple juice. During this time Paul escapes from the home he is in and goes out onto the city streets. The editing and effects here are impressive and ahead of its time. Some of the visits he has with the people he meets prove interesting including an offbeat conversation that he has with a lady that he meets inside a Laundromat as well as one he has with a very young girl inside her house.

Although he starts out shaky I felt Fonda’s performance was pretty good and this may be one of the best roles of his career. Strasberg who receives second billing appears just briefly and has very few speaking lines. Dern is always fun when he is playing eccentric or intense characters, but here where he is playing a relatively normal one he is boring. His part was originally written for Nicholson to play and I think he would have done better.

I was expecting some sort of tragic or profound-like ending especially with the opening paragraph that starts the film and is read by a narrator with a very authoritative newsman-like voice describing the ‘horrors’ of drug use and how it is becoming a serious societal problem. However, nothing really happens. The movie just kind of stops and that is it. The weak conclusion hurts what is already a so-so film making it like the drug itself an interesting experiment, but nothing more.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: August 23, 1967

Runtime: 1Hour 25Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Roger Corman

Studio: American International Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Border (1982)

border

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Border patrol isn’t easy.

Charlie Smith (Jack Nicholson) is a guard new to the border patrol who must learn to deal with the ugly realities that come along with his profession including becoming more and more pressured to get involved with the corruption that goes on there.

This is a stark presentation with an authentic atmosphere that at times makes it seem like a documentary. The viewer becomes submerged in this intelligent study on a serious and important issue with a result that is nothing short of enlightening. Unlike most other Hollywood movies nothing is over-the-top or melodramatic. It doesn’t try for shock value nor resort to clichés. The narrative is straightforward and uncompromising while offering no easy answers or annoyingly false wrap-ups.

Director Tony Richardson takes an expectedly humanistic approach and yet doesn’t seem inclined to push any type of agenda. This film has a look and feel different from any of his other films. He is known primarily for his wacky comedies (Tom Jones, The Loved One) and yet this film is grainy and grim. Much of that is due to the excellent use of natural lighting. This film has a very serious tone throughout and yet for some reason doesn’t end up being oppressive like some of those other ‘important’ pictures. It is also well paced with a riveting and compelling finish.

Nicholson gives a sensitive and sincere performance and a rare turn seeing him underplay everything. Valerie Perrine is very good as his wife and having her spend lavishly while oblivious to the poverty around her makes for interesting insight. Warren Oates is top-notch as always in support as Charlie’s supervisor. His character is brimming with a potential confrontation with Charlie and it is unfortunate that the movie doesn’t pursue this further.

Overall this is a strong picture that deserves more praise and attention and one of Nicholson’s best performances.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: January 31, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes

Rated R

Director: Tony Richardson

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video