‘Once Upon a River’ and reliving the Comedy Store talent


By Richard Roeper

Signal Contributing Writer

‘Once Upon a River’

Film Movement presents a film written and directed by Haroula Rose, based on the novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell. No MPAA rating. Running time: 92 minutes.

“Mom always said she never belonged here with me and Daddy. … She had to go find herself, she said. And she couldn’t do that here.” — 15-year-old Margo Crane, in 1977 small-town rural Michigan, in “Once Upon a River”

Beautiful. Shocking. Moving. Haunting. Lovely.


First-time feature writer-director (and Chicago-area product) Haroula Rose’s “Once Upon a River” is all that and more. It’s a stark, authentic slice of a certain kind of rough-hewn life — the calloused-hands world we see in gritty films such as “Frozen River” and “Winter’s Bone,” “Leave No Trace” and “American Woman.” There’s no trace of Hollywood glamour or gloss to the story, no hint of actor-y flourishes in the deeply resonant performances. Just a lean, finely crafted, memorably real story announcing the presence of a major new filmmaking talent — and a young actor with the promise of limitless potential.

Kenadi DelaCerna gives a heartbreakingly effective performance as Margo Crane, a teenager living with her Native American father, Bernard (Tatanka Means), a good man who is doing his best to raise Margo after her mother abruptly abandoned the family a year prior, when Margo was just 14. Living next door are the Murrays, who control the town and appear to be an all-American family, but there’s a dark and ugly side to this bunch. The patriarch, Cal (Coburn Goss, effectively slimy), who is Bernard’s half-brother, has taken a strong (perhaps unhealthy) interest in Margo, much to the disgust of his racist, bullying, jerk sons Junior (Arie Thompson) and Billy (Sam Straley).

On successive nights, events transpire that leave Margo a rape victim, Cal shot and wounded, Bernard dead. Before the sheriffs can question Margo, she hops into a small boat given to her by her grandfather and sets off down the river, a crumpled letter in her pocket containing the last known address of her mother.

“Once Upon a River” becomes a road movie on the water. Margo’s father taught her well; she is an accomplished hunter and outdoorswoman, and she knows how to navigate the river and the surrounding woods. She enlists the help of a couple of backwoods poachers named Paul (Evan Linder) and Brian (Dominic Bogart), who have bought deer meat from Margo in the past. (These two guys look like villains, but this movie is too smart to take the easy dramatic path.) There’s a romantic interlude involving a Native American named Will (Ajuawak Kapashesit), and an unlikely friendship forged with a trailer-dwelling, crusty old coot known as Smoke (John Ashton, a reliable character actor since “Beverly Hills Cop”), who has emphysema and is leaning on death’s door but refuses to give up his cigarettes.

With Margo providing the occasional voice-over narration, “Once Upon a River” is bathed in warm and gorgeous autumnal tones, belying the predicament of a 15-year-old girl with a shotgun and a fishing kit, living on the run. (And that’s not the sum of Margo’s dilemma. There’s more coming.) Margo finally finds her mother (Lindsay Pulsipher), who is taken by surprise and says it’s really good to see Margo, as if they’re Facebook friends and not mother and daughter. The house is so white: white curtains, white walls, white lamps, white rugs, white sofa, white picture frames, big white Cadillac in the driveway, white mom who is more worried about her fiance finding out she has a teenage daughter than making amends. Like many an interlude in “Once Upon a River,” even when poetic license is exercised and there’s a kind of enhanced realism at play, it’s done in nuanced, subtle and believable ways.

“Once Upon a River” is a living prose poem filled with beautifully framed images and featuring some of the strongest writing and acting you’ll find in any movie this year. It’s not to be missed.

‘The Comedy Store’

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A five-part docuseries premiering Oct. 4 on Showtime.


 drove by it in ‘94 when I was on vacation, and I remember thinking, ‘Someday I’m going to play there.’” — Bill Burr, “The Comedy Store”

Before you can become a big-time stand-up comedian, you have to stop at the Store. Like, a couple hundred times.

We speak of The Comedy Store, the iconic club on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, California, where for nearly 50 years the likes of David Letterman, Jay Leno, Dave Chappelle, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Leslie Jones, Chris Rock, Sam Kinison, Whitney Cummings, Marc Maron and Sarah Silverman have walked in, usually as unknowns, and eventually commanded the stage as superstars. First you might have to work the door taking tickets, then you’d sign up for open mic and hope to get a five-minute slot, then you might actually get paid — and maybe, just maybe, one day you’d reach the point where your photo would find a spot on the black-painted walls.

Director-comedian Mike Binder has put together THE definitive oral and visual history of the club in “The Comedy Store,” a five-part docuseries on Showtime. Binder fits solidly into the category of stand-ups who did well at The Comedy Store, but never quite reached the top. But he’s a talented director, a good listener and a well-versed student of comedy, and he clearly has the respect of his peers, as he scored interviews with nearly every major living comic who has toiled at The Comedy Store at some point over the last 47 years.

In the opening episode, we see grainy old footage of the late and legendary Mitzi Shore, who received the club as a divorce settlement from her husband, Sammy Shore, in the early 1970s and for decades ruled from the Iron Throne of comedy, handing out coveted time slots, telling the less talented to go home and promoting the best comics to headline status. We’re also treated to a treasure trove of old photos and footage of Letterman, Leno, Chappelle, Williams, et al., when they were impossibly young and still honing their trade.

In addition to the comics who emerged from The Comedy Store and enjoyed decades of success, “The Comedy Store” reminds us of the blazing stars who burned out, including Sam Kinison and Freddie Prinze, who had rock star success at the club, which catapulted him to appearances on Johnny Carson’s career-making “Tonight Show” and a hit sitcom, but became consumed with addiction and paranoia, and took his own life at just 22. 

Far less tragic but still compelling are the interviews with comics such as Jeff Altman, who was as funny as Letterman or Tim Allen or any of them back in the day, but made a couple of wrong moves (anyone remember the disastrous “Pink Lady and Jeff” on NBC in 1980?) and never quite broke through to the next level. The best comedians are wonderful storytellers, and “The Comedy Store” honors that with a bounty of comics telling one great story after another.

Copyright 2020 Chicago Sun-Times

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