Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) review


Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Beatrice Arthur (Ackmena), Art Carney (Saun Dann), Diahann Carroll (Hologram), The Jefferson Starship, Harvey Korman (Chef Gormaanda/Krelman/Amorphian Instructor)

Directed by Steve Binder

The Short Version: Akin to watching the Death Star charge up and misfire for 100 minutes while attempting to obliterate Alderaan, few films are as spectacularly painful to watch as the STAR WARS HORRIBLE DAY SPECIAL. After the disgrace of not receiving a medal at the end of STAR WARS (1977), Chewbacca got an entire film built around him... which turned out to be an even bigger galactic disgrace. You'll contemplate going to the Dark Side when it's over. Unless you're a lover of awful films this pile of Bantha fodder isn't the movie you're looking for.

Han Solo is taking Chewbacca to his home world of Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day with his family, but they get sidetracked after running into an Imperial convoy. Meanwhile, his family pass the time with an interminable string of comedy skits and musical numbers that are worse than being stranded in the swamps of Dagobah--till they're all reunited and it doesn't feel so good... for the viewer.

On November 17th, 1978 CBS aired what was arguably the most notorious Made For TV movie ever produced. Normally, when a special presentation is a hit, it gets replayed one or more times; this spin-off of George Lucas's mega-hit was beaten by an episode of THE LOVE BOAT, and never aired again. Since its release in May of '77, STAR WARS mania gripped the world. There had been nothing like it before on the big screen. And there had been nothing quite like the HORRIBLE-DAY SPECIAL on the small screen, either. 

There's little positive one can say about this enterprise. One thing to be said is this epic disaster was an extremely ambitious television production for its time. Costing a million dollars and shooting on a 4 week schedule, it boasted five writers (Pat Proft, Leonard Ripps, Rod Warren, Bruce Vilanch and Mitzie Welch) to flesh out this original STAR WARS story from George Lucas. Unfortunately, Lucas and this quintet of authors assumed that what people really wanted to see was an entire story about Wookies... creatures that do not speak English. In this case, Chewbacca's family--his wife Malla (played by a man!), his grandfather Itchy, and his son Lumpy (played by a girl!). So, for chunks of the show, you're left to try and figure out what is being said as giant hairy rugs gurgle and gargle their dialog without the use of subtitles. 

Remarkably bad in every conceivable way, the feature began filming under the direction of David Acomba (later the director of the 1989 zombie flick NIGHT LIFE). He was replaced halfway into shooting (some sources state it was a few days) by Steve Binder over "artistic differences". Binder was a prolific tele-film maker who had a lot of variety specials to his name; which is basically what THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL is--a variety show replete with singing and dance numbers and alleged comedy skits. And yet, you'll find the lack of humor disturbing.

Featuring sporadic appearances by the original cast, it's a failed platform for comedians like Art Carney, Bea Arthur, and especially Harvey Korman--who plays three different characters. Sadly, the skits are about as precise as a stormtrooper's blaster skills; and about as funny as Chewbacca ripping your arm from its socket after beating him in a game of Dejarik.

While there's nothing legitimately funny in the movie, some mild, unintentional laughs are derived from a single, eyebrow-raising sequence when the elder Wookie receives a Christmas gift (or a Life Day present) from Art Carney--it being a computerized disc inserted into a virtual reality machine. The senior walking carpet then proceeds to have a virtual sex encounter with a holographic Diahann Carroll. "Oh, we are excited, aren't we? Now, we can have a good time... can't we?" she asks. Tame by today's standards, it's awfully suggestive for boob tube family entertainment in the late 1970s.

The other major musical number is 'Light the Sky On Fire' from Jefferson Starship. Written specifically for this variety special, the video features antiquated graphics that will only be appreciated by nostalgia lovers. It's as bizarre as everything else with the pink and purple lighting; and musical instruments that glow like light sabers. The song itself was included on 'Gold', the band's compilation album released in 1979. Some of their biggest hits followed in the 1980s, including 'We Built This City', 'Sara', and 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now'; the last song featured in the hit comedy MANNEQUIN (1987).

All the skits, music and dance numbers are viewed from within Chewbacca's household. There's a flat screen monitor in every room of their spacial tree house. Naturally, since it's the Empire with their big government grip on the galaxy, they need to keep tabs on what everyone is doing when they aren't piping in the most boring entertainment roster on 12 systems. So, when one of Chewie's family gets bored, we get to share in that boredom by seeing things like alien acrobats doing a futuristic Renaissance routine. Basically a variety show stitched to a film format, it fails at both since the variety is as barren as the Dune Sea; and there's no real plot to speak of.

As for the comedians, Harvey Korman essays three increasingly stupid characters in three atrocious sketches. Korman, known for his comedy roles on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW (1967-1978) and movies like BLAZING SADDLES (1974), is anything but funny here. His performance as a female, multi-armed alien chef early into the picture is as agonizing as Lucas's dialog in the STAR WARS prequels. What feels like an hour has only been 25 minutes... and it gets worse from here. Yes, if this were the Kessel Run, 12 parsecs will seem like an eternity.

Next, Korman plays an Amorphian Instructor, a robot that teaches Lumpy, Chewbacca's kid, how to build a mini-transmitter. How you derive comedy from that is anyone's guess. It's moments like these that you begin thinking of that scene in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) where Luke says to Yoda he'll try to use the Force to remove his X-Wing fighter from the swamp--to which Yoda famously retorts, "No! Try not. Do... or do not. There is no try". In the case of the HOLIDAY SPECIAL, Yoda is telling you there is no 'try' in finishing it; you either watch it to the end or you fail. And it's tempting to go over to the Dark Side in trying to finish this misguided scrap pile.

Things improve slightly in Korman's third interpretation as Krelman, a lonely, love-starved alien with a big hole in the top of his head. He enters the Mos Eisley cantina run by Beatrice Arthur who is essentially playing Maude in Space but using the pseudonymous Ackmena. For whatever reason, this is initially treated as an ill-fated love story. Krelman mistakes Ackmena's responses as romantic interest. Now depressed, Krelman leaves and we never see him again. The attempt at humor is Krelman pouring drinks into the top of his head, by the way. Ackmena then spends what seems like infinity trying to get the patrons to leave--finally using the power of song to get them to exit the joint after the Empire orders a curfew. 

With the unnecessary Krelman character feeling like filler, and the filmmakers succeeding in making a room full of monsters dull, you begin to realize the only wretched hive of scum and villainy are the writers who penned this hare-brained mess.

Still, seeing all those aliens again manages to work in the film's favor. In some cases you get a better look at them; in others you see them in a more lively capacity like Ponda Baba, who avoids losing an arm this time. Rick Baker supervised this sequence, even designing two new cantina barflies--a Lion Man and Baboon Man. These two were makeup jobs as opposed to the masks everyone else was wearing. According to sources from the time, this sequence was shot over the course of a 24 hour period resulting in some of the mask-wearers passing out from lack of oxygen.

Art Carney (Ed Norton from THE HONEYMOONERS) comes off the best of the human guest stars in that he's not playing a comedic character; so the only humiliation suffered is simply appearing in this movie. He contributes nothing to the proceedings except to give us some idea of what the Wookies are saying by his responses to their gargle speech. Regarding the Wookies, Stan Winston was responsible for the Malla, Lumpy and Itchy suits.

The appearances of the STAR WARS cast are just as bizarre as everything else. They all seem uncomfortable compared to their roles in the hit movie from the previous year; like they don't want to be there, and this is evident in their acting. Learning that none of them wanted to do this movie is revealing; not just because the script is horrible, but because movie stars didn't do television and vice versa. They did it out of obligation to George Lucas. Nonetheless, their participation makes the STAR WARS HORRIFIC SPECTACLE a bit more bearable.

Reportedly, Carrie Fisher was enticed to it because she was given the opportunity to sing a song--in this case, it's the 'Life Day' song heard during the closing moments.  Fisher, like the other returning cast members, doesn't seem like the same Leia from the movie. Considering her substance addiction, it's possible that was a factor. She seems out of it in the few scenes she's in. Actually, being in this tele-film, and knowing it aired and that people remember it, is enough to turn one to alcoholism or worse.

Mark Hamill was originally supposed to sing but that nonsense got cut. You'll recall he was in a terrible car accident in January of 1977 where he wrecked his BMW and fracturing both his nose and left cheekbone in the process. For his role in HOLIDAY SPECIAL, his hairstyle is different and he appears to be in heavy makeup. Luke is in a couple of scenes, the first of which he shares with R2-D2. 

Kenny Baker, the midget actor inside the R2-D2 outfit in STAR WARS, did not slip inside the lovable trashcan for this tele-film. An unknown actor took over when Mick Garris wasn't operating a remote controlled model. Anthony Daniels, however, did return as C-3PO. He wasn't enamored with the production either; later referring to it with various descriptive terminology like "crap" and "unbearable". Daniels even went so far as to say you'd die if you watched it!

Harrison Ford would like to think it doesn't exist--calling it an embarrassment. He gets the most screen time of the cast (other than Chewbacca) and yet it doesn't feel like the same Han Solo. No longer the selfish rogue of the movie, Han is now a sentimentalist. Less a smuggler, he's more of a snuggler given the affection he displays for Chewbacca and his family. He even refers to Lumpy as sweetheart! He's the sort of guy you wouldn't expect to shoot first, if you get my meaning and I think you do. You can tell in Ford's line delivery, his body language, that he doesn't wish to be in front of the camera.

Incidentally, Peter Mayhew (who returns as Chewbacca) is the only member of the original cast who seemed to enjoy his HOLIDAY.

With so much galactic fail following the first mega-blockbuster, there's one minor, shining light amid the darkness--a ten minute cartoon that's the first onscreen appearance of Boba Fett. Just like the rest of this anxiety program, the animated short makes zero sense; but it's the closest this dereliction of direction comes in capturing the spirit of STAR WARS (1977). Ironically, Boba Fett does more in this ten minute toon than both his roles in EMPIRE and JEDI combined.

Additionally, the HOLIDAY SPECIAL is periodically dotted with footage from STAR WARS, the movie whose momentum this galactic garbage nearly liquidates. Mostly action shots, a couple of them are scenes cut from the theatrical release version; this gives some modest value to a production totally lacking in it. One of these inserts involves Darth Vader (with new lines dubbed over by James Earl Jones) ordering household searches for Han and Chewbacca; and another is during the cantina sequence showing a man running into a giant alien being of some kind.

Despite it being his idea adapted into a tele-play by five writers, George Lucas hated the end product so much he had his name removed. In an interview with Patty Maloney (who played Lumpy), Lucas, who was busy trying to put EMPIRE together, signed off on the dallies. Mind you, 20 years later Lucas would let Jar Jar Binks loose on the world. It would seem that Lucas--like everyone else in front of and behind the camera--didn't want to do a TV special at all; but if one must be done, the hope was that it would act as a bridge between STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, keeping fans interested while also selling merchandise. Unsurprisingly, outside of prototypes, we never got Malla, Itchy and Lumpy action figures.

Airing only once, THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL was unceremoniously cast off into a trash bin far, far away; yet fan interest has brought it back from its YouTube graveyard and bootleg DVD confines to a wider audience again; much to the chagrin of those who starred in it. So now it can be embarrassing for surviving cast and crew all over again. If anything you can look at this Wookie-centric pockmark on STAR WARS lore as ill-advised redemption for Chewbacca not getting a damn medal.

This review is representative of the Editdroid fan DVD. Specs and extras: fullscreen presentation; English and Spanish language; English subtitles; Extras: TV promos; Boba Fett cartoon; TV Land segment on SWHS; FOX News segment on SWHS; Harrison Ford on SWHS (2 segments); Anthony Daniels on SWHS (2 segments including vintage special from 1978); Peter Mayhew on SWHS; Stan Winston on SWHS; running time: 01:38:00

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Counsellor (1973) review


Martin Balsam (Don Antonio Macaluso), Tomas Milian (Thomas Accardo), Francisco Rabal (Vincent Garofalo), Dagmar Lassander (Laura Murchison), Eduardo Fajardo (Calagero Vezza), Carlo Tamberlani (Don Michele Villabate), Joe Pollini (Spezzano), John Anderson (Don Vito Albanese), George Rigaud (Priest), Sacheen Littlefeather (Maggie, the hooker)

Directed by Alberto de Martino

"Nobody walks away, Thomas... nobody important. A lawyer is an important man. You're a lawyer..."

The Short Version: Alberto De Martino's quasi-masterpiece is a fantastic Italian variant of THE GODFATHER (1972) filmed in New Mexico, San Francisco, and Sicily. Traversing familiar ground, it's a tour de force for Balsam and Milian who spend the better part of an hour building the father-son relationship before stacking piles of bodies amid rounds of machine gun fire and blood squibs. Riz Ortani's memorable main theme will get stuck in your head for days.

Thomas Accardo is released from a New Mexico penitentiary after being convicted of bribing a juror. The counsellor to mobster Don Antonio, Accardo's two year stint in prison has given him time to think about his place in the world; so he decides to separate himself from the mafia in the hopes of living a normal life. Don Antonio tries to persuade him not to leave the Family but Accardo has made up his mind. However, one of Don Antonio's soldiers, Garofalo, betrays him by siding up with the Spezzano Family to take over the Don's businesses and take out Accardo. After a failed assassination, the counsellor decides to join the fold once more and help take down the enemies of his Godfather.

THE COUNSELLOR is one of the strongest entries in Italy's genre of crime pictures that exploded after the success of American crimers like DIRTY HARRY (1971) and THE GODFATHER (1972). Italy was producing these pictures prior to the above-mentioned productions, but the vitality of the genre came after them. What the Italian variants had the US hits didn't is that Italy was steeped in mob ethos and rampant criminality. The violence in Italy at that time was alarmingly prominent, and it provided numerous subjects to base movies on.

De Martino's film sticks close to the plot of Coppola's THE GODFATHER (1972) as its narrative thrust--placing Balsam in the Brando role and Milian subbing for Duvall. Taking place in New Mexico, San Francisco and Sicily, it's the conclusion where De Martino's movie has roots in bloody mob history. Reportedly, the Sicilian village locale of the last 20 minutes was the setting of the First Mafia War that began 10 years earlier in Ciaculli, an outlying district of Palermo.

The secret to THE COUNSELLOR's success is in the handling of the relationship between Balsam and Milian. A lot of screen time is spent on them. Had this crucial arc been botched, the film would be a failure; and with four writers claiming screen credit (including the director), the chances of exposition fumbling is high. 

Unfortunately, some of the secondary characters suffer--like the relationship between Milian and his girlfriend played by Dagmar Lassander. De Martino's movie may copy Coppola's, but there's an 80 minute difference in running times between them. This is the film's sole weakness. Certain character motivations are given little more than peripheral attention; one of these is in the main villain, Garofalo, played by prolific Spanish actor Francisco Rabal (THE LONG DAYS OF VENGEANCE [1967]; NIGHTMARE CITY [1981]).

As strong as the arc between the two protagonists is, the link with the antagonist is the weaker section of the chain and the film suffers for it. It is said a hero is only as good as his villain. Well, we have two heroes so the addition makes up for the slack in the antagonist arena. Unless something was lost to the editing, Garofalo's usurpation isn't expounded upon as much as it could have been. We don't learn why he wants Don Antonio snuffed out till 70 minutes have passed. His ambition, desire for revenge out of jealousy, feels almost secondary to the plot; and yet it is what drives the movie--slowly, but we get there. After a number of deaths, the two sides have a meeting and Garofalo lets it be known that not only was he was insulted that Don Antonio would allow Thomas to leave the syndicate (per the Family rules), but didn't trust him enough to run his own business.

Martin Balsam is fantastic as the sympathetic, fatherly mob boss Don Antonio Macaluso (Magadino in the English dubbing). While prone to ordering or participating in violence, Balsam's Don Antonio isn't presented as viciously as Brando's Don Vito. Reportedly, Michael Gazzo (THE GODFATHER 2 [1974]) was considered for the lead.

Balsam (who died a memorable death in Hitchcock's PSYCHO [1960]) won an Oscar for his supporting role in A THOUSAND CLOWNS in 1965. He was also nominated for another Oscar for SUMMER WISHES, WINTER DREAMS; a picture released the same year as THE COUNSELLOR (1973). Balsam carved a niche for himself in Italian cinema during the 1970s. He'd worked with Franco Nero in the excellent CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN (1971) and previously worked with Francisco Rabal in the historical drama THE INFAMOUS COLUMN (1972). DEATH RAGE (1976) for Margheriti and BLOOD AND DIAMONDS (1977) for Di Leo closed out his Euro crime work. He continued to be a welcome presence for action fans in the 1980s in movies like DEATH WISH 3 (1985) and THE DELTA FORCE (1986).

This was the first film De Martino and Milian worked on together. It must of been a pleasant experience for the actor as he reportedly wanted to work with the director again. The same year the two got together on HERE WE GO AGAIN, EH, PROVIDENCE?; the equally silly sequel to Guilio Petroni's comic western LIFE IS TOUGH, EH, PROVIDENCE? (1972).

Milian was a fantastic actor who used his insecurities to his advantage. Throughout his career he played an array of colorful characters and was often disguised in some way. With so many eccentrics on his resume, it's refreshing, and even jarring, to see him playing a far more subdued, yet impulsive, character. THE COUNSELLOR is one such role.

Leaving Cuba for America in 1955, Milian wanted to become an actor. After obtaining his US citizenship, bit roles came his way, but it wasn't till he went to Europe that he came to prominence in Italian westerns. Essaying the main villain in Eugenio Martin's THE BOUNTY KILLER (1966), the westerns that defined him included Sergio Sollima's THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966), FACE OFF (1967) and TEPEPA (1968). He later found a home in the genre that supplanted the westerns, the crime movies. Some of his best from this period include Lenzi's seminal ALMOST HUMAN (1974) and SYNDICATE SADISTS (1975). THE COP IN BLUE JEANS (1976), Nico Giraldi, is among his most popular characters in a long-running series of movies. Late in his career, Milian would return to America for supporting roles in movies like FOOLS RUSH IN (1997) and TRAFFIC (2000). Sadly, he died March 22nd, 2017 in Miami, Florida aged 84.

Character actor of television and movies John Anderson has a role as Thomas's mob friend in prison, Don Vito Albanese. Some of his credits include episodes of GUNSMOKE (1955--1975) and THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1959--1964); and movies like PSYCHO (1960), FIVE CARD STUD (1968), and playing the notorious Colonel Iverson in SOLDIER BLUE (1970).

Aside from its similarities in plot, THE COUNSELLOR shares kinship with THE GODFATHER in another way. Sacheen Littlefeather has a bit part as a hooker near the beginning of the movie. At the time, she was the president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. In March of '73, Brando would win Best Actor for THE GODFATHER; but he wouldn't accept the award out of protest against what he viewed as negative treatment of Indians in Hollywood at that time. She refused to accept the award on his behalf, instead reading off a lengthy statement Brando had prepared. She did very few movies, but the best of them is the Indian revenge movie, JOHNNY FIRECLOUD (1975).

De Martino directed a few other crime pictures before and after this one; one of his best--and one of the craziest--of the genre was BLAZING MAGNUM (1976) starring Stuart Whitman, John Saxon and Martin Landau. One of the most insane, and longest, car chases in cinema history is found there. De Martino passed away in Italy June 2nd, 2015 aged 85.

Riz Ortolani delivers one of his patently somber scores. Done in the style of some of his popular works, it's akin to his Academy Award nominated 'More' for MONDO CANE (1962); and the main theme for Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980).

As much as it's a copy of Coppola's classic, THE COUNSELLOR could've used a cloning of that film's running time, too. There's a good story here, populated with fine actors, only not enough time to do all the characters proper justice. Still, both Balsam and Milian are sufficiently characterized; the film rests comfortably on their shoulders--bolstered by a marvelous, and melancholic, score from One of Italy's best composers. Italian crime fans don't need counseling to decide if they should add this one to their collection. Kapish?

This review is representative of the Dorado Films DVD included in the double feature bluray release of WEAPONS OF DEATH and SPECIAL COP IN ACTION; Specs and Extras: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English dub; Italian dub with no English subtitles (the back of the box makes no mention of the Italian track); running time: 01:41:43
Related Posts with Thumbnails


copyright 2013. All text is the property of and should not be reproduced in whole, or in part, without permission from the author. All images, unless otherwise noted, are the property of their respective copyright owners.