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The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978, Steve Binder)

The Star Wars Holiday Special elicits a lot of sympathy. Not for the goings on, but for the cast. The easiest cast members to pity are Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford. Not only are they stuck in this contractually obligated ninety-some minute nightmare of terrible television, director Binder doesn’t even know how to shoot their cameos. For some reason, particularly with Fisher and Hamill, Binder shoots them from a low angle. Hamill and Fisher are lucky enough to just have regular cameos (Ford’s stuck with an extended one); only neither of them should be shot from low angle. High or eye-level, sure, but never low. Maybe it was a way to keep the actors (reasonably) happy and not to really involve them in the Special. More on Binder’s incompetencies in a bit (or not, there’s a lot to get through when it comes to incompetency and the Holiday Special).

But the most disrespected cast member is Peter Mayhew. The whole thing is about getting Chewbacca (Mayhew) back to his family for Life Day, the Wookie holiday where they either sit around the home with these luminescent balls or take the luminescent balls to the Tree of Life while enrobed. Again, Binder’s not a good director and Jerry Bixman and Vince Humphrey are worse editors, so it’s unclear if the eventual Life Day celebration at the Tree of Life is an actual event or just the Chewbacca family’s shared vision. The planet is under Imperial control, after all, and it seems unlikely the Empire would let the Wookies congregate.

Anyway, Mayhew doesn’t get anything to do. Ford’s trying to get him home for Life Day, so he’s second-fiddle to Ford for those scenes–which are an atrocious mix of Star Wars stock footage and close-up inserts–Holiday Special filmed before Empire so it’s not like the actors were already in character. And when Mayhew does get home, the Special (thankfully) is almost over. The disaster is almost complete. But it does mean Mayhew doesn’t get any time with his family and their Life Day celebration ends up hijacked by more cameos, terrible video editing effects, and, well, Fisher singing a bad song.

Because most of Holiday Special is about Mayhew’s family waiting for his arrival as they prepare for Life Day. Mickey Morton plays his wife, Paul Gale’s his dad, Patty Maloney’s his son. In some ways, it’s better they didn’t have Morton and Mayhew make out Wookie style, but not narratively. The Special already has Harvey Korman doing alien drag, fully committed, so why not just go for it. Mayhew and Morton’s eventual hug has nowhere near the emotional weight Holiday Special–not to mention a Life Day celebration–needs.

Until Mayhew (and Ford) show up at home for the celebration, it’s a rough day for the family. The Imperials are bothering them. Although Mayhew is galavanting around the galaxy, he’s still on the Empire’s census and they want to know why he’s not at home. That–way too long–scene has Jack Rader as the mean Imperial officer overseeing the search. Rader’s awful. And not in a way you can feel any sympathy for him. His subordinate Michael Potter is also awful, but at least Potter gets to Jefferson Starship and chill thanks to trader Art Carney.

About the only person in Holiday Special, at least of the featured cast, who doesn’t seem to recognize it’s an unmitigated disaster, is Carney. He’s got his shirt open to his navel, he’s maybe got the hots for Morton, and Carney’s all in. He’s never good or anywhere near it, but he doesn’t get any sympathy for the bad. Bea Arthur, who shows up as a Tatooine bar proprietress (Holiday Special shows the Star Wars cantina alien costumes need good cinematography not to look idiotic–John B. Field’s lighting is abysmal), she’s never any good, but she gets a lot of sympathy. Not so for Carney. He’s never unlikable, but he’s not pitiable.

I guess it makes him the most sincere performance in the whole thing.

Except Korman, who plays three different characters, all outside the regular action. His four-armed alien cooking show host is the best–and the only time Special is any good. The second, where Korman’s doing an instructional video on a gadget–whenever Special needs to kill time, someone watches something, usually supplied by Carney; anything not for young Maloney is inconveniently erotic. For his Life Day present, old man Wookie Gale gets a personalized holo-video of Diahann Carroll being way too suggestive for a televised kids’ holiday special before going into terrible song, which Gale enjoys in the basest sense.

In the living room, with his daughter-in-law and grandson over in the adjoining kitchen. Though Maloney might be upstairs. Carney spends a lot of time trying to keep Morton warmed up.

Then, later, Carney sits Imperial doofus Potter down in front of a Jefferson Starship hologram and Potter’s just as turned on by their performance of “Light the Sky on Fire” (a terrible song the band actually released). That holographic device Potter’s watching was meant for Morton too. There’s a lot to unpack with how the Special treats Morton. Hamill tells Morton to give him a smile, Carney’s always going in for a kiss. Why doesn’t Mayhew appreciate Morton more; must be too busy thinking of galactic galavanting.

Before the dreadful Special is over, there’s a cartoon introducing Boba Fett (voice actor Don Francks didn’t return to the part in Empire), with some odd animation choices. Though the abnormally long-faced and squinty-eyed Han Solo (voiced, of course, by Ford), is something of an amusing standout. It’s not good or interesting, but it’s bad in an amusing way, which is often the most The Star Wars Holiday Special can achieve.

I suppose the whole thing could be worse–and I realize I didn’t get back to Binder’s inept direction but, really, I can’t. I don’t want to think about what could make the Holiday Special worse. It’s terrible enough as produced.

Props to Korman, though, for managing to do a solid sketch and a half in this catastrophe of brand exploitation.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Steve Binder; teleplay by Pat Proft, Leonard Ripps, Bruce Vilanch, Rod Warren, and Mitzie Welch, based on characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, John B. Field; edited by Jerry Bixman and Vince Humphrey; music by Ian Fraser; produced by Joe Layton, Jeff Starsh, Ken Welch, and Mitzie Welch; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Mickey Morton (Malla), Patty Maloney (Lumpy), Art Carney (Saun Dann), Paul Gale (Itchy), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia Organa), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Bea Arthur (Ackmena), James Earl Jones (Darth Vader), Don Francks (Boba Fett), Diahann Carroll (Mermeia Holographic Wow), Jack Rader (Imperial Officer), and Harvey Korman (Krelman / Chef Gormaanda / Amorphian Instructor).


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Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977, John Boorman)

Oh, no, Ennio Morricone did the music for Exorcist II: The Heretic. I feel kind of bad now because the music is not good and I like Ennio Morricone. I’m sure I’ve liked something cinematographer William A. Fraker photographed too, but his photography in Heretic is atrocious. Because it’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, everything about it is atrocious. It doesn’t even look like anyone had any fun; it’s not like director Boorman goofed off and then slapped together some awful sequel involving hypnosis and super-beings among us. Maybe some stuff got changed, but all the stupid was always there.

In addition to the stupid there’s the bad. Bad acting. Lots of bad acting. Richard Burton is bad. I like Richard Burton but he is very bad in this film. Louise Fletcher isn’t great either. She might be better than Burton but has a worse part so it’s iffy. But then Burton does perv out on Linda Blair, who’s probably seventeen in a bunch of this movie, and she’s supposed to be playing a sixteen year-old. It’s strange because Boorman clearly tries not to get creepy with Blair when she’s doing a dance act, but then he’ll get creepy whenever she’s in a nightgown or something. It’s weird. It’s another weird, awful thing about this movie.

Awful cameo from Ned Beatty. Embarrassingly to both Beatty and the film. Kitty Winn’s bad. Belinda Beatty’s fine. She sort of disappears once it’s established priest Burton can understand the mental telepathy machine doctor Fletcher has cooked up to cure children of mental illness. Burton sees its potential in demon-hunting.

And then it just gets stupider. And stupider. And stupider. And the sets are crap and Fraker can’t shoot them and it’s long and why does Burton take Blair to a creepy hotel and how is it possible there isn’t a single line of good dialogue in the whole thing. It’s awful. But in a way you do want to watch it, you do want to see where it goes, because it goes all over the place.

The Heretic. Yuck. But kind of amusingly yuck.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Boorman; screenplay by William Goodhart, based on characters created by William Peter Blatty; director of photography, William A. Fraker; edited by Tom Priestley; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Richard Macdonald; produced by Boorman and Richard Lederer; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Max von Sydow (Father Merrin), Richard Burton (Father Philip Lamont), Louise Fletcher (Dr. Gene Tuskin), Kitty Winn (Sharon Spencer), Belinda Beatty (Liz), Paul Henreid (The Cardinal), James Earl Jones (Kokumo) and Ned Beatty (Obnoxious man).


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Patriot Games (1992, Phillip Noyce)

Patriot Games has a mess of a plot. After introducing Harrison Ford as the lead, it veers into this period where not only does Sean Bean–as Ford's nemesis–get more screen time, but also everyone in Bean's IRA off-shoot plot. It might work if fellow group members Patrick Bergin and Polly Walker had better written roles and gave better performances. Bean too is problematic, but he barely has any lines; he just sits around looking sullen, putting him ahead of Bergin and Walker.

Somewhat simultaneously, the script repeatedly puts Ford's wife (Anne Archer) and daughter (Thora Birch) in harm's way. Screenwriters W. Peter Iliff and Donald Stewart don't seem to understand they can only cry wolf so often, especially after laying on the fun family stuff. And Ford, Archer and Birch are a fun movie family, no doubt. The movie could probably even get away with more of it.

The film really gets started in the second hour, with Ford trying to catch Bean after spending forty minutes not wanting to return to the CIA to do that very thing. The procedural scenes are lacking because there's no resolve behind them, they feel forced. The action sequences, however, are all outstanding because director Noyce does a phenomenal job directing this film. Great editing from William Hoy and Neil Travis too.

There are some good supporting performances–Samuel L. Jackson, J.E. Freeman, Richard Harris–and Ford is outstanding. But some good acting and fine directing can't make up for the plotting; the plotting's atrocious.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Phillip Noyce; screenplay by W. Peter Iliff and Donald Stewart, based on the novel by Tom Clancy; director of photography, Donald McAlpine; edited by William Hoy and Neil Travis; music by James Horner; production designer, Joseph C. Nemec III; produced by Mace Neufeld and Robert Rehme; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Harrison Ford (Jack Ryan), Anne Archer (Cathy Ryan), Patrick Bergin (Kevin O’Donnell), Sean Bean (Sean Miller), Thora Birch (Sally Ryan), James Fox (Lord Holmes), Samuel L. Jackson (Robby), Polly Walker (Annette), J.E. Freeman (Marty Cantor), James Earl Jones (Admiral Greer) and Richard Harris (Paddy O’Neil).


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The Ambulance (1990, Larry Cohen)

How can Cohen do such amazing New York location shooting, but not be able to direct whatsoever? His composition is a disaster, but so is every dolly and pan. Luckily, his script is decent and his cast is phenomenal. So, even with the direction, The Ambulance is outstanding.

While Cohen’s dialogue is occasionally a tad tepid, his plotting is unbelievably tight. He introduces characters in the natural flow of the story, never worrying late additions may be hostile to the audience.

The film has a bunch of fantastic performances but the two most important are Eric Roberts (as the lead) and Megan Gallagher (as his reluctant sidekick). Roberts maintains energy and enthusiasm throughout—every moment he’s on screen, he’s captivating. Even with a terrible haircut.

Half Gallagher’s performance is unspoken, just her expressions changing. She has great chemistry with Roberts.

Red Buttons has a nice part—excellent chemistry between him and Roberts. It’s too bad there wasn’t a sequel, given he gets along with Gallagher well too.

James Earl Jones also has a good part. He has a lot of fun. The next supporting tier is strong too. Janine Turner, Eric Braeden, Richard Bright, all good. Stan Lee has a nice cameo for realism’s sake (Roberts works at Marvel Comics).

The only bad performance is Jill Gatsby’s and the only bad technical aspect (besides the direction) is Jay Chattaway’s awful score.

I wasn’t expecting anything from The Ambulance; turns out it’s quite good. Roberts and Gallagher make it occasionally amazing.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Larry Cohen; director of photography, Jacques Haitkin; edited by Claudia Finkle and Armond Lebowitz; music by Jay Chattaway; production designer, Lester Cohen; produced by Moctesuma Esparza and Robert Katz; released by Triumph Films.

Starring Eric Roberts (Josh Baker), James Earl Jones (Lt. Spencer), Megan Gallagher (Sandra Malloy), Red Buttons (Elias Zacharai), Janine Turner (Cheryl), Eric Braeden (The Doctor), Richard Bright (McClosky), James Dixon (Detective Ryan), Jill Gatsby (Jerilyn) and Stan Lee (Marvel Comics Editor).


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