About John Halpheneffer, PhD

by John Halpheneffer, PhD:

While some film critics choose their vocation, the world-renowned John Halpheneffer, PhD, seems to have had his thrust upon him. Born and raised on a sound stage at Mack Senate's world famous studio, an orphaned young Halpheneffer helped to support his ailing mother and thirteen siblings by cleaning up after Senate's many lavish prohibition-era studio parties, where the bootleg champagne flowed like wine and life was anything but easy (for Halpheneffer). Working alongside such future luminaries as a seminal H.W. Fields and a young Chaplin himself, a shrewd young Halpheneffer, wise beyond his years, was able to make extra money, unbeknownst to Senate and his ilk, by re-selling the many leftover champagne bottles, sorely needed at a time when our country was embroiled in one or another of its many wars. Setting aside the profits made by hawking this virtual goldmine of detritus from a Hollywood Babylon that seemed neither to notice or care, young Halpheneffer, PhD was able to pull himself up by his bootstraps and there was not a man-jack among them who dared say that he did not.

Putting himself and his fifteen siblings through the prestigious Iowa's Center for the Bombastic Arts and Polytechnic, Halpheneffer, PhD, struggling always through thick and thin, managed to have conferred upon himself the coveted title of PhD, in film and book review, in 1932, proving himself to be a true American, Horatio Alger-type, rags-to-riches story in his own right. Halpheneffer, in addition to having written film and book reviews for nearly every single newspaper in all fifty states, was a Traveling Fellow of Poppyfield College, Montana, for over seventy-seven years. He has, in addition to all this, self-published no fewer than three thick books that have been read by editors at America's top publishing houses: Real 2 Real Reviewz, Son of Real 2 Real Reviewz, and Revenge of Real 2 Real Reviewz. His local television series: Real 2 Real Reviewz, with John Halpheneffer, PhD, was a family favorite for decades, in Houston Texas, appealing to young and old alike, and this "web-log" is Dr. Halpheneffer's bold attempt to take the world of the "World-Wide Internet" by storm, thus proving himself a true Renaissance man of arts and letters in his own right. In his spare time (which is limited, due to his many accomplishments), Dr. John Halpheneffer, PhD teaches creative writing and film review, part time, at the Bread Dough School in Camel's Hump, Vermont.

He enjoys model rocketry, feeding his cats, sitting on his porch of an evening with an amusing and fragrant bottle of very expensive wine, and watching (and reviewing) films.

His three favorite films of the twentieth century are: Won't You Come Home? (Bill Bailey) (1932), Sumatra Thundersnake Run! Run! (1975), and Angels of the Heart (1981).

E.T. L'Entité Terrible

E.T. L'Entité Terrible 1982 ***(1/2)

The turbulent 60s and swingin' 70s saw a veritable smorgasbord of occult cinema which served to usher in a new aeon of unholy darkness never seen before or since. Films such as Stephen King's: Rosemary's Baby (1968), King's: The Exorcist (1973), and Stephen King's: The Omen (1976) explored mankind's relationship with its dark and terrible "mirror self" in ways that were, at the time, as unique and innovative as they were dark and terrible. These films changed the very face of horror, and of terror as well, and indeed, there seemed nowhere else to go after King's magisterial reign. And this is the phantasmagorical world in which a young Steven Steinburg found himself, lost in a labyrinthine nightmare he did not create, amidst a horrifying new aeon that seemed to echo the very hidden "shadow side" of humanity itself. A world of the supernatural.

For those readers not familiar with the lighthearted and whimsical visions of the world-renowned evangelical cartoonist, Jack Chick, it is past time for you to get acquainted here. Chick's holy spirit-driven musings have both entertained and converted any number of unsaved human souls for the past forty years and if you are one of the lucky few to have discovered one of these tiny treasures, perhaps lying in a pool of urine in a shopping mall restroom, or amidst a pile of unidentifiable filth on a bus station floor, consider yourself fortunate indeed. One can only imagine the countless lost souls like myself who have, over the past forty years, dropped to their very knees in those humble aforementioned pools of urine and filth, and, following a simple step-by-step instructional page appearing in each and every one of Chick's tracts, became "born anew", all in the span of a mere fifteen minutes or so. Perhaps these individuals then went on to get smashed into oblivion by trains, or Greyhound busses or the like, only to find themselves whisked away on the wings of a snow white dove to stand before a faceless and loving and angry God and then His swift and merciful judgment.

It is here, in a dark and terrible aeon he did not create, that the young expatriate filmmaker Steven Steinburg found himself wandering lost and alone through the snow covered streets of Paris, in that year of our Lord, 1982. Having produced three marginally successful films in that gay city: Duel (1971), Mâchoires (1975), and Clôturez les Rencontres de la Troisième Sorte (1977), the fledgling auteur was at a loss at what to do next. Mired in the existential angst that only a sojourn to "the city of brotherly love" can produce, young Steinburg had taken to wandering the subway (le tube) stations and absinthe houses of Paris' dark underbelly. And it is here, at the very hour of midnight, during New Year's Eve, 1982, that the fates would convene to produce what should have been one of the most commercially-successful cinematic exercises in the history of l'écran argenté.

Wandering lost and alone, during l'heure verte, young Steinburg, overcome by existential angst, slipped and fell in a puddle of absinthe and found himself sprawled on a Parisian sidewalk, beneath the Eiffel Tower itself. As the clock struck the hour of twelve, and raucous Parisians bellowed out their renditions of Auld Lang Syne, amidst many clinkings of champagne flutes, Steinburg's shaky hand searched fretfully in a snow bank for his errant glasses, they having flown from his face when the titular auteur plummeted to the gay cobblestones. There, in the darkened Parisian street, as the hands of Big Ben itself struck the very witching hour, young Steinburg's naked eyes alighted upon a small, crudely drawn religious comic book (or "tract") buried there in the Parisian snow. It was a urine-stained copy of Chick's: Dark Dungeons, left there seemingly just for him, by divers hands, and, as the young expatriate knelt there in the gay Parisian snow, with tears in his eyes, as Auld Lang Syne continued all around him, and the flute clinking, as the new aeon of 1982 was just then beginning to dawn, cinematic history was very nearly made. He opened the tract and began to read. And he knew he had come home at last. And the clock struck twelve again.

How Steinburg's satanic magnum opus (complete with eerie musical score by fellow scaremeister, Don Williams) failed to garner any measure of success during its lackluster release is beyond the scope of this reviewer and indeed leaves him shaking his head in grim disbelief and muttering to himself in his darkened office. Perhaps the socioeconomic realities of the second great depression of 1982--a by-product of Reagan's "Houdon Economics" and "piddle down" theories and the like--conspired to prevent the success of genuinely groundbreaking fare such as this. Or maybe audiences here, on the other side of the "big pond", were not yet ready for the decidedly French sensibilities of this seminal exposé of horror and terror. Perhaps they never will be. Indeed, it seems as if the moviegoers of E.T.'s heyday may have had enough of the dark aeon ushered forth by the aforementioned films of King and his ilk, leaving Steinburg floundering once again, in the wrong place at the wrong time; a realm the hapless director would find himself in, time and time thereafter, throughout the Reagan years, and well into the Bush, Clinton, and Bush years as well.

Inspired by the very Jack Chick tract Steinburg found on that gay Paris street, E.T. takes place, as do most of the films produced by Steinburg and friends such as Jim Lucan and Mario Corpolla, in the idyllic setting of Modesto, California. However, it is with this film--what should have been Steinburg's signature work--that the arcadian façade of the fictional town is shattered beyond all recognition, then reassembled into a dark and terrible mirror, reflecting the primal nature of humanity back at itself, as if in some sort of religious funhouse. In a tense mise en scene, at the beginning of the film, we meet the Elliott family: hardworking SAHM, Mary Elliott (Sandra Dee), her husband, Michael (Robert MacNaughton), their young son, Billy Elliott (Henri Thomas), and younger daughter, Hazel (introducing Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in a seminal dual role). As Mary putters about the suburban Modesto kitchen, her seemingly ne'er do well spouse remains otherwise occupied, playing a game of "Mazes and Monsters" with several (also seemingly ne'er do well) friends. As they play on, incognizant to the havoc their "innocent" fun will soon unleash upon the sleepy burg, the pestilent Billy teeters near the edge of the table (and near the edge of oblivion itself), whining and cajoling to be included, but his entreaties fall upon deaf ears. And Mary continues to putter, like a marionette on a dark string of terror, oblivious to the doom that, even now, begins to stir in nether realms far from where she finds herself, far from her sleepy Modesto suburb.

Meanwhile, in a nightmarish forest setting, mere miles from the suburban Modesto abode, the very gates of hell itself have been flung wide open; the result of various spells and machinations unwittingly crafted by Michael and his friends during their "harmless" role-play (again, see Dark Dungeons for more information on this shockingly common phenomenon). Through this gate, shrouded in smoldering brimstone, the terrible demonic entity: E.T. (puppeted ably by Jim Henson) himself is summoned, and, surely chucking to himself in satanic glee, the foul hellbeast makes its way toward the sleepy suburban home, in search of innocent souls. At that same moment, a crack team of commando exorcists, led by Father Keys (Peter Coyote) arrives at the scene of the summoning, perhaps alerted by divine intervention itself, to find they are too late. The gates of hell slam shut, the foul echoes reverberating throughout the sleepy suburban forest; an echo of humanity's darkest satanic impulses, in this, humanity's darkest hour.

Michael and his friends send the young Billy Elliott outside to await the arrival of a seemingly innocent pizza (from one of those pizza places germane to Modesto, where you actually tell the delivery man in your driveway what you do, or do not want; in this case, anchovies. Only in California!), only it will, before the course of this foul and monstrous night is over, verily become a pizza of doom. A pizza of darkness. Thus begins the first sighting of the shadowy dybbuk, as the creature uses its demonic powers to cause the family's "swing set" to move, seemingly of its awn accord. Understandably frightened by the diabolical apparition, young Billy retreats into the quiet suburban home, trampling the pizza underfoot (in a masterful symbolic portrayal of the ritual trampling of the communion host, as in a black mass), quite understandably shaken by what he has seen. Finding hoofprints left behind by the demon, the Elliott family retires to their sleepy home for the night, with the exception of Billy, who elects to stay awake, out in the yard, now a veritable playground for the maleficent incubus (as symbolized by the aforementioned scene with the family "swing set").

The creature makes itself known to the boy, in its first attempt to possess the innocent lad, but Billy again finds shelter in the sleepy house, although the first tendrils of E.T.'s satanic control over his very being have already been flexed. The following night, under the influence of mere seconds of contact with the powerful beast, Billy leads the demon across the threshold of the sleepy home (with what I am assuming are deconsecrated communion wafers), and thus, in that one fell instant, seals his own fate and the fate of his family as well. He befriends the diminutive prince of darkness who communicates through a series of preternatural growls and unearthly guttural cacophonies (voiced ably by Mercedes Ruehl, using a homemade concoction of 7 and 7, lemon juice, and Choreboy shavings), and the slow possession of, and eventual draining of, every last fiber of innocence from the young and sleepy suburbanite begins.

The next day, Billy's father, Michael, a professional football player, returns home from practice and stumbles upon his son, who is in the process of receiving more satanic knowledge under the dark tutelage of the demon, and becomes understandably frightened (yet still unaware of his own role in the summoning of the creature), as does young Maude, upon returning from school. Like Lucifer himself, the demonic entity then assures them that all is well, as he appears to them to be fair and harmless, although, in reality, he is anything but. Then, in an intentional parody of the book of Genesis, on the part of director Steinburg, the creature goes on to create a model of the heavens and the earth from clay and then gives it "life", sending the orbs spinning above the fascinated heads of the doe-eyed Elliott family. When they ask the devil from whence it came, it merely points upward, implying that it is a creature of heavenly light, as opposed to the creature of hellish darkness that it, in all actuality, is, in reality. At the behest of the vile monster, the three members of the Elliott family conspire to keep E.T.'s existence a secret from the pious matriarch of the sleepy suburban Modesto home.

Over the course of the next seven days (in yet another sinister parody of the book of Genesis), the archfiend slowly gains what will prove to be the eventual and total possession of young Billy, thus ensuring its existence in our world. The demon engages in any number of abominable acts, such as transvestitism, alcohol abuse, dark botany, and with the possession nearly complete, near-fornication by proxy, through Billy with a classmate at school. During this time, the demon further conspires with the possessed boy, using information gleaned from medieval grimoires, to create an amulet of satanic power, the purpose of which is to create yet another portal to hell itself, where the shadow entity can presumably return, having completed its immoral task. Construction of the infernal device is completed just in time for the high satanic holiday of Halloween, or Samhain, or the "devil's birthday" (see Chick's award-winning tract, Boo!, for further explanation), and the now-completely-possessed Billy and the demon travel (flying, as did the witches of Salem) to the very same eldritch forest from whence the vile creature was summoned, to work their dark and terrible magick beneath a blood red full moon.

Having subsisted for as long as possible upon the soul-essence of Billy Elliott, the demonic E.T. finds himself, along with the boy, nearly drained of all energy, back at the sleepy suburban Modesto home. As SAHM Mary stumbles upon the ashy countenance of the monster, lying prostrate on the sleepy bathroom floor, with young Billy lying likewise, prostrate as well, she becomes understandably shaken and upset and whisks her son away from any further harm, as the demon reaches out in order to possess Mary herself, she being the only untainted member of the Elliott clan. Having been guided by divine intervention to the house (in yet another religious parody, this of the three Magi), the team of exorcists, wearing a wide array of holy vestments, engulf the sleepy house with a covering made of holy robes and tassels and make ready to perform the exorcism to end all exorcisms. Restraining the demon and the possessed boy, Father Keys begins his liturgy, complete with lashings of holy water and admonishments in Latin. All the while, Billy, still under the influence of E.T.'s unholy magick, writhes and pleads with the stalwart priests, to no avail. Upon the conclusion of the harrowing ordeal, it appears as if the demon has finally been destroyed, the nightmare over. Or is it?

In a masterful parody of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, on the part of Steinburg, the sinister creature is brought back to life by none other than Billy Elliott himself, who remains a repository of demonic energy due to his sustained proximity to the malignant spirit and his relentless interest in role playing games such as "Mazes and Monsters" (again, see Dark Dungeons, for further clarification). The demon is not only resurrected, but his powers have now increased exponentially, as evidenced by his newfound ability to possess entire groups of individuals, en masse, including Michael, his friends, and again, young Billy himself. Using this dark and terrible power, the hell-creature compels Michael to steal a van from the exorcists and drive him toward the forest, where the entrance to Hades is now presumably open. E.T. then possesses the minds of all around him, as well as their bicycles, as they fly (like witches) over the heads of the sleepy residents of the suburban Modesto homes and arrive at the open portal. No longer needing to possess young Billy, who was a mere pawn on his Mephistophelian chessboard, E.T. clasps the boy to himself and proceeds to devour his soul entirely. Mother Mary and Father Keys, with little Blanche in tow, hasten to stop the completion of this dark ritual, but arrive too late. The absorption of Billy's soul has now come full circle, as evidenced by the raging hellfire glowing within the chest of the demon, as he touches the boy’s ribcage (in a parody of the creation of Eve) and informs him that he'll be "right here". Indeed he will, for all time, as he exits our plane forever, back to the stygian depths of hell itself, leaving Billy Elliott a withered husk of a shell of a human being. In a downbeat ending to rival even that of King's Rosemary's Baby, a single tear slowly trickles down the cheek of the young lad, no doubt the last tear that will ever find purchase there as he now faces a new life in Modesto. A life without a soul. A life bereft of even the faintest glimmer of hope. The portal closes and we are treated to what will prove to be the last anti-biblical act of heresy on the part of the villainous demon: the summoning of a rainbow, arcing triumphantly across the Modesto sky; a twisted mockery of God's promise to never destroy humanity by water again.

Much has been written, throughout the years, about the so-called "E.T. curse", and it is a fact that nearly everyone, from key grips to best boys to gaffers, save Steinburg himself, has met, in intervening years, with all manner of calamity and ignominy. Indeed, I wish the film itself had been as popular as the legends that have sprung up around it. I will not entertain such mystical claptrap here, although I do find myself reasonably skeptical, yet not completely unconvinced either way. There is one thing I am not skeptical on, however, nor unconvinced upon, and that is the fact that this “little movie that could” is definitely as deserving of accolades today as it should have been back when it was made. So, if you can manage to locate an aged VHS copy of Steinburg's horror (oc) cult classic, perhaps in the "foreign films" section of your local library, treat yourself today to its bone-chilling, one-of-a-kind satanic majesty and wonder. Also, if you are ever fortunate enough to come across a genuine Chick tract, in either the aforementioned public restrooms, or bus stations, or both, do yourself a favor and take it with you, although it is likely to be rife with bacteria. The life you save may be your own. God bless!

Having completed his Satanic Majesty’s dark work, the demonic entity, E.T., prepares to enter the portal to hell, leaving Billy Elliott (Henri Thomas) an empty husk in a red, hooded sweatshirt.

The Godfather

The Godfather (1972) ***(1/2)

Tune into any of the myriad retrospectives of the greatest films of the swingin' 70s and you will be invariably treated to the same old tired mishmash of all-too-familiar scenes from the likes of Jack Nickelsen and Joe Donn Baker. The top five of any such trips down cinematic memory lane will, doubtlessly, contain such overhyped (in this reviewer's opinion) "classics" like Three Days of the Condor and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. One film that has been consistently, and criminally (again, in my opinion), overlooked, however, is a little-known genre film that came and went entitled The Godfather, based on the book of the same name, by Mario Lucabrassi, and directed by Mario Corpolla. Why this film is so vastly ignored by both casual moviegoers, as well as by serious students of the craft, will forever remain baffling to me. Perhaps it was the running time of Corpolla's epic, clocking in at nearly twenty hours, or perhaps the audience of its day simply wasn't ready for such an honest and unflinching look at the day-to-day trials and tribulations of a simple, hard-working family of Italian-Americans. I would even go as far as to wager that The Godfather, despite its eternal status as a never-was, paved the way for any number of Italian-American films, such as Francis Scorsese's Good Fellows (1990), and I am told even a long-running television series called The Sopranos (1999-present?).

According to Peter Bisklund, in his tell-all expose of the world of 70s cinema: Slacker Mike and the Raging Dyke, several young soon-to-be film directors spent their youths tooling up and down the Modesto California coastline in their souped-up jalopies and Ford Thunderbirds, what with raccoon tails hung from CB antennas streaming gaily in the cool California breeze; staging drag races and clam bakes in between their day jobs at Harlan Corman's famous studio and their night classes at Modesto's newly-christened US School of the Filming Arts (USFA), when they weren't busy cramming for exams in caffeine-induced all-nighters or playing pranks on the Dean. Perhaps the closest and most bosomest of companions was a group of four soon-to-be directors who called themselves the USFA Film School Pals: Jim Lucan, Robbie Howard, Stan ("the man") Kubrik, and Martin Corpolla himself. It is important to note that it was here, at these seemingly innocuous clambakes and yage-fueled binges, that the four, for the very first time in film history, began the process of "Net Working", which consisted of brainstorming a variety of highly-disconnected and metaphysical ideas as a creative, almost hive-minded, collective; a process that still goes on in Hollywood to this very day. It is during these Net Working sessions that any number of narrative tools were explored, including the young, soon-to-be directors’ penchant for dream sequences, a device still utilized by any number of underground "Art House" filmmakers to this very day. Dream sequences were perhaps used most extensively by Lucan in his 1969 cult classic Star Wars, but they were employed in a more subtle, yet nearly equally as effective, a way by Corpolla himself in The Godfather, as well. As we will soon see.

Ah, those heady days and balmy nights! When reading Biskin's glossy narrative, one can almost hear the waves of the Modesto Ocean, crashing ceaselessly against the sandy shores of night's dreaming, interrupted only by the somber baritone of Wolfman Jack himself as he belts out radio classics from the dashboards of a simpler, bygone era of youthful innocence. One is treated, during the course of Biskun's potboiler, to several "tales told out of school" regarding young starlets like Lisa Minelli and Margo Kidner, as they vie for the attention of the USFA Film School Pals in a storyline that could have served as a movie in its own right, it's that intriguing. One less-than amusing anecdote, however, concerns Kidner turning up filthy and toothless in a neighbor's back yard, drug-addled and half-insane. She is later hospitalized in Modesto and, in a scene sure to bring tears to the eyes of even the most jaded of readers, it is little Stan Kubrik, the true heart of the USFA Film School Pals, who saves the day. He tells her that she has so much to live for and encourages her to seek help. The Pals stage an intervention, on the beaches of Modesto, in which they all break down in tears and share many hugs and many more meldings of hearts. (NOTE: Kidner would go on to co-star in The Godfather as Connie Rizzo, the daughter of the hardworking, honest Italian-American clan, proving to one and all that she was footloose and fancy (and drug) free.)

I could go on and on, chapter and verse, reciting any number of compelling narratives from Bislin's glossy tome, yet it is the chapter on Corpolla, and the making of what should have been one of the greatest films of the 20th Century, that concerns us here. As readers of Slacker Mike will remember, while Kubrik was the heart of the group, Howard the muscle, and Lucan the “white rabbit”, Corpolla no doubt played the role of the "merry prankster". And he played it well. Included in the DVD extras of The Godfather: Master of Ceremonies Director's Cut Box Set, released in 1992, we are treated to a blooperesque-style "out take" in which Corpolla surprises character actor Jacob Marley by placing an anthropomorphic horse's head (on loan from friend Lucan's ILM studios) underneath the covers of a prop bed that the venerable Marley was supposed to climb into for one of the film's many scenes. The venerable actor's reaction, upon discovering the equine artifact, is so over the top as to be priceless and is sure to have you rolling in the aisles, laughing, as I was! But again, I digress (although you should really check it out sometime, it's really funny).

However, Corpolla, although well-known for his jovial nature and open-hearted generosity on the set, had his serious side as well and could get "down to business" as well as any cigar chomping, riding crop-wielding, puffy-pantsed mogul in the history of Tinseltown’s silver screen. A legend cited in Bisland's glossy tome, although possibly apocryphal, concerns the financing of The Godfather, a film which almost didn't get made at all, due to the lack of funds on Corpolla's part. With nowhere else to go, and the other Pals in almost as bad a shape as he himself was, the balding soon-to-be director turned to his boss, Harlan Corman, with whom he had a working relationship at Corman's own Modesto film studio. According to Biskin, the other pals razzed the soon-to-be director mercilessly, telling him that he was "crazy as a jaybird" (Howard) and that he'd have to pry the money from Corman's "cold, dead hand" (Howard). One and sundry do agree on one point, however, and that is that, somehow, someway, Corpolla got his money. And an American epic for the ages [should have] been born, and cinematic history was [almost] made.

NOTE: A little bird (Biskin) told me that, when asked later by pal Lucan how he had performed this singularly impressive feat (Corman was a notorious miser and alcoholic), Corpolla simply replied: "I made him an offer he couldn't rebuke." And a Tinseltown legend, purportedly true, according to Biskin, was born. This singularly impressive bit of dialogue would work its way into the script of Corpolla's Italian American cult classic (The Godfather), as the titular head of the silver screen family can be heard uttering this line, which should have been a classic bit of dialogue for the ages, endlessly imitated by young and old alike. Alas, this never was. As we will soon see.

The Godfather concerns the everyday, day-to-day trials and tribulations of a simple, hard-working family of Italian-Americans, the titular head of which owns the family-owned-and-operated JNCO Olive Oil Company. The film opens in Sicily, as we are treated to a prescient image of the titular head of the hard-working family: Don Coleman, as a young child, alone and very much frightened as he makes his way through the trials and tribulations of Ellis Island, circa 1882. We then flash forward over a span of fifty years, to the "dirty thirties", as we find a now elderly and feeble Coleman (played ably by Sal Mineo, in what should have been his titular Oscar-winning performance), who appears to have suffered a stroke in the intervening years and sits, alone in the dark, on the day of his daughter's wedding. The good-hearted and genial Coleman, like Roy Rogers, never met a "man he didn't like" as he showers favors upon all who ask, great and small, including giving a stern talking-to to one of the neighborhood "toughs" who has been reportedly causing trouble with some young girls in the area. During this star-studded wedding extravaganza (with singing and dancing elements that would be repeated, nearly verbatim, in Corpolla's later, slightly more acclaimed, World War II coming-of-age drama: The Deer Hunters) (1988), we meet the extended members of the Coleman family, including daughter, Cathy Rizzo (Kidner), eldest son Jimmy the Gent (James Conway), the next-to-youngest son of the family: Don "Michael" Coleman Jr. (played ably by a young Robert DeNero in this, his breakthrough role), and their two cousins: Tom and Freddy Coleman (Robert Duval and John Cazale, respectfully). We also meet a zany cast of kooky uncles and aunts of the large and culturally diverse family, including appearances by Abe Pagoda ("Fish" from television's Taxi) and Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. in a cameo appearance that simply has to be seen to be believed. Due to the surprisingly cutthroat nature of the olive oil exporting business, the various members of the Coleman family find it necessary to "brush up against" members of organized crime (La Casa Nasa, or Mafioso) from time-to-time, and it is here that young Don Michael Jr., first seen receiving the medal of valor as a pilot in the Air Force in WWI, will begin what will rapidly become a juggernaut of a downward spiral into the very heart of darkness itself, in prohibition-era New Jersey.

Michael Jr.'s descent into darkness has its auspicious beginnings when he, at the behest of a new friend (a young, nearly-unrecognizable James Gandolfini), decides to break into the house of a wealthy landowner (Giuseppe Sillato) to steal an oriental-style rug so that his brother's children will have somewhere to sleep. They are surprised by the unexpected return of the landowner, however, and Michael is forced to murder the portly man in an act of self-defense. From there, he goes "on the lamb", ignoring numerous entreaties from his father to choose another line of work and fly straight, so to speak. His brother, Fast Jimmy (who will later pay the penultimate price for Michael's spiral into the heart of darkness), also attempts to talk sense to the hotheaded black sheep of the Italian-American family, to no avail. Then, in a tragic case of mistaken identity, Don the elder is shot and killed by his own nephew Freddy (who has begun his own rapidly-spiraling descent into the darkness of drugs and sex addiction), who, hopped up on pep pills, mistakes him for the next-to-the-youngest scion of the Coleman family (we are later treated to a fantasy image, ala Requiem for a Dream, that shows what Don Coleman Sr.'s life might have been like had he lived. This titular mise en scene, which shows him cavorting in the olive oil fields with his youngest child, Vito, is truly one of the most heartbreaking I have ever borne witness to, in the opinion of this reviewer. It is verily a virtuoso feat of improvisation on the part of the talented and venerable Mineo and one that goes, sadly, largely disregarded by both casual moviegoers and venerable students of the craft to this very day).

Driven half-mad by the death of his father, a mere simple exporter of olive oil for the JNCO Olive Oil Company, Michael Jr. vows revenge upon the men whom he believes perpetrated the heinous deed and guns them down, in a blaze of glory, at a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn, NY. He is then again, "on the lamb" and, en route to talk some sense into the brash young hothead, Jimmy Two-Times is waylaid at a tollbooth by the uncles and brothers of the men his own brother killed, and pays the penultimate price for his brother's brash, hotheaded act of revenge. This event, coupled with a dream sequence (possibly inspired by a young Jim Lucan) that Michael Jr. has, in which he gives his brother Freddy the fabled Italian-American "kiss of death" (a La Casa Nastra sign of intense admonishment) and shoots him to kill while on a fishing trip in the New York Harbor, gives brash young Don "Michael" all the encouragement he needs to "straighten up and fly right" as he returns, hat in hand, to the JNCO Olive Oil Company, the humble export business his hardworking father built from the sweat of his brow, brick by brick, from virtually nothing. He comes full circle and he is truly his father's son at last.

However, not all is as it seems. While Michael was in exile, on the lamb in New York, the various criminals of New Jersey’s darkest wharfs and alleyways have slunk, shamelessly, from their woodworks and, through ever-escalating acts of heinous violence, threaten Michael's own family, his uncles and partners in the olive oil export business, and their very way of life. After Michael's own daughter's best friend and maid of honor at her own wedding (played ably by Martin Corpolla's own real-life daughter, Sophia) is shot and possibly even killed as the result of this needless bloodshed, Michael calls together a meeting of all of the various independent Italian-American business owners of the neighborhood and, with the help of the church (in a nearly imperceptible nod to Mineo's breakthrough picture, On the Waterfront), he calls for peace and for an end to what nearly seems to be a protracted and needlessly bloodletting war at this point. Amidst rousing applause, Micheal is elected to be their leader as they move forward into what are now the Eisenhower Years and perhaps humanity's darkest hour.

Michael promises them that he'll do the best he can to keep his temper in check, and to help them like his father before him, and, in a tearjerking show of solidarity for the deceased patriarch, he sheds the middle name he has used, like a shield, from both his father's business and himself, for so many years, and adopts his true first name: Don, truly becoming his father's son at last. Other than during a hunting trip, in which he engages in a violent power struggle with his cousin Freddy over a pair of boots, Don Jr. is true to his word. The film ends with the titular scion falling asleep in a lawn chair, after a hard day's work, while gazing out over the olive oil fields, in a scene that is silent with noise, yet redolent with symbolism, as it shows his contentment and acceptance for his own birthright and the simple pleasures of a day's hard work, which once was abhorrent by his former standards and which is now contentedly accepted, as symbolized by his falling asleep after a job well done. He is truly his father's son at last. I think you (the viewer and reader) will agree that the sixteen + hours spent watching this film will fly by like mere minutes and will leave one begging for more. So, if you can locate this little "diamond in the rough" of a gem, make yourself "an offer you can't refute" and watch it, in its entirety, today.

Abe Pagoda "sleeping with the fishes" in this, one of The Godfather's more disturbing scenes.

It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) ***(1/2)

Film purists, like myself, will need nearly no urging to watch this almost unknown cult classic the way that director Franz Kafka intended: the final colorized director's cut which first premiered in a limited re-release during the turbulent 1960s, when, after its all-too-short run amongst the grindhouses and speakeasies, it quickly (yet elegantly, in the opinion of this reviewer) died on the vine and was seen no more, until its long-awaited (by purists of the craft) release on videodisc in 1987. Two laserdisc versions were produced: the original, which was filmed in black and white, due to budgetary restraints in prohibition-era Hollywood, and the final director's cut, stunningly remastered and colorized with computers and the like, the way Kafka had always intended. So, if you have the chance to view this much-overlooked masterpiece, don't get "duped" by substandard copies in cheap and cruddy (in the opinion of this reviewer) monochrome; treat yourself to the garish, almost neon pageantry of gay sights and sounds that is the remastered, colorized version, the way the director intended. Kafka is on record as stating that the latter is the way he intended, so if you think you know better, then by all means "miss the boat" on what could have been a once-in-a-lifetime extravaganza of gay sights and sounds for you, but then, if you do, you're not really a purist, so I guess it doesn't really matter anyway.

Never before, in cinematic history before or since, have I seen such an honest and unflinching portrayal of one man's slow descent into an alcoholic hell, in a world he did not create. Indeed, were it not for Kafka's honest and unflinching docudrama, three-day driver's intervention programs the world over would be deprived of such crucial fare as Sandra Bollock in 28 Days Later (2002) and Alex P. Keaton in The Clean and the Sober (2002). The semi-autobiographical screenplay, written by Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder, Bill Wilson (from his play by the same name), neatly encapsulates the complex web that is the harrowing world of addiction and recovery in a tidy package that slides in at just under two hours, in a rare display of efficiency sorely lacking in most of the "stuffed shirt", chronologically-lengthy (in terms of time), biblical epics and historical docudramas of its day. Perhaps this is due to Wilson's own terse “less is more” writing style, as evidenced in countless books and pamphlets given surreptitiously to me, over many years, by concerned family members.

The film's titular and seminal anti-hero, Jim Bailey (played in this, his signature role, by Johnny Stewart, who would go on to star in no less than fifty-two subsequent Kafka films) is, much like screenwriter Wilson (and therefore all alcoholics in the history of the world) may very likely have been in real life: a happy-go-lucky entrepreneur who enjoys an occasional snifter of bathtub gin with the boys, yet remains blissfully unaware of the impending personal apocalypse that lies, carbonating, within the demonic bubbles of his very glass. Bailey (a pseudonym for Wilson himself, thus keeping with the tenets of alcoholism), a sober (appearing) family man (to all appearances), from Bedford Falls, USA (Wilson's own place of origin), sits in a dingy tavern contemplating the wreckage of his life and we are treated to the first of what will be several hallucinations on the part of the square-jawed imbiber: a pair of anthropomorphic stars that swirl about his head, showing him visions which may or may not be real. Kafka employs a hitherto-unseen sleight of hand here, like that up a magician's sleeve, and we, the viewers, are like mere babes in the woods, as Kafka almost appears to be laughing at his own private joke. Although much more will be revealed.

NOTE: Much has been made of director Kafka's heroic choice to film It's a Wonderful Life in the desolate ghettoes of the real-life Bedford Falls, despite near-constant civil unrest and union squabbles in the war-torn city. When attempts were made, on the part of studio moguls, and even by Kafka's wife herself, to get the venerable director to film elsewhere--on sound stages and back lots, or the like--the brash young director is quoted as saying: "Damn you all! No mountain [is] too high and no ocean too deep [for me not to film in Bedford Falls]! I have miles to go before I sleep!" And film history was very nearly made that day. In that instance, Kafka became the first, but certainly not the last, film director to "make a stand" and show one and all that nothing short of an act of God (and even then, maybe not) would stand between him and "the little movie that could". Indeed, the real-life Bedford Falls, with its colorful (in the remastered edition) streets and postmodern alleyways, is so firmly embedded in the minds of purists, like myself, who have seen Kafka's tour de force, that the town is almost like a character itself, it is so integral. The gay streets, festooned with all manner of holiday accoutrements, make it look as if it’s Christmas all year round. Indeed, in another bold move, one that would be echoed in countless films of the twentieth century, Kafka eschewed any direct association with the holiday itself, instead making his use of Christmas, as a plot device, almost incidental and very nearly imperceptible. A purist can't help but imagine what things might have been like had the brash director taken a different route. Indeed, It's a Wonderful Life may have gone on to become one of the great holiday epics of our age, playing and re-playing on television, ad nauseum, until it became a bloated and grotesque caricature of its former self, much like Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962) and The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (2006).

While Bailey sits in the darkened “speak”, hopelessly lost in an alcoholic stupor and haze, his young son and namesake, sorely neglected and in dire need of parental guidance, falls through the ice of a nearby pond, in Bedford Falls (in a scene in which it is heavily implied that the accident could have been avoided had Jim Bailey been sober and attentive to his young son's needs, instead of drowning his sorrows in a shameful pantomime of self-pity and an even greater display of self-loathing), and loses the hearing in one of his ears. The right or the left, it is not made clear. Bailey stumbles to one of his many entrepreneurships, at a Bedford Falls drugstore, where, in a truly horrifying display of alcoholic temperament, he savagely clouts his son and namesake about his newly-damaged ears. During this gory scene, his son refers to the unrepentant patriarch as "Mr. Gower" (a seemingly enigmatic reference that purists who are "in the know" will no doubt eagerly recognize, causing them to perhaps smile wryly at this "in joke" placed there, by Kafka himself, just for us). We are also treated in these seminal early scenes to the hopes and dreams of Bailey's eldest son and namesake, who is graduating from high school and is full of youthful and lofty ambitions. Ambitions that will, no doubt, be thwarted by his father's monstrous slide into active alcoholism, as any purist can see. We, the viewers, are also treated to a kaleidoscopic Busby Berkey underwater song and dance number, in which several fully clothed youths, including Bailey’s eldest son and namesake, dive into an cleverly-hidden swimming pool (concealed ingeniously, by Berkely himself, beneath the floorboards of a seemingly-innocuous gymnasium) and undulate endlessly in what is a carryover from Wilson’s short-lived off-Broadway musical. True purists will no doubt be giddily surprised at the inclusion of this august scene, long-rumored to have been utterly unfilmable; further proof of Kafka’s visionary prowess which was light years ahead of its time. “The little movie that could” indeed.

Through a montage of fevered and hallucinatory flashbacks, we are also introduced to Jim’s brother Harry (Sam Wainwright), a pilot in the United States Air Force, who received the coveted medal of valor in WWI. Harry, who incessantly urges his younger brother to enter a rehabilitation program, ends up leaving Bedford Falls forever, due largely in part to his wayward sibling's excessive drinking. Bailey’s father also dies of a stroke, brought on by undue worry regarding his son’s alcoholism, yet Bailey remains indifferent to it all, caught up in the throes of his devil-may-care lifestyle, in a world he did not create, and blithely goes about his business until John Barleycorn himself sits in the driver’s seat. And all appears lost.

Meanwhile, the town’s handicapped philanthropist, Mr. Potter (played here by Ebeneezer Scrooge, in a role that surely thumbed its nose at naysayers who had been attempting to typecast him as a withered old miser for years), attempts to help Bailey, offering him a ground-floor position at his own company, as well as help for his “dirty little secret”, but is met by heaping spoonfulls of scorn and ridicule from the perpetually-inebriated tippler, who quickly flies into yet another of his patented rages, and, after threatening violence toward the kindly old gentleman, storms out of the place and soundly thrashes his mentally-challenged uncle Billy (Sir Alastair Sims), over a matter of $80.00, in yet another shameful display of familial violence. Far from finished, the lanky inebriate staggers home where he subjects his loving wife (Patty Duke) and children, including his daughter, Zoso (a young Karolyn Grimes), to a foul mouthed, seemingly-endless tirade in which he reveals all of the sins of the seemingly-puritanical citizens of Bedford Falls, one and sundry, brought to light, in a piece of dialogue that, while almost unspeakably ugly in terms of brute shockingness, is nevertheless Oscar worthy, if nothing else. This high-tension mise en scene ends with Bailey smashing apart the banister and throwing the debris at the heads of his wife and small son (who is partially deaf, due to a sledding accident), upon which he has a “moment of clarity”, common to all alcoholics, great and small, and, horrified at the twisted shell of a man he has become, he flees the abode, into the swirling mists of Bedford Falls, as if the mists can hide the shame of what he has done. Conspicuously absent from this scene is Bailey’s eldest son and namesake, who has presumably run away from home, due largely in part to his father’s excessive drinking, as he always said he would. Again, thanks to Kafka’s deft sleight-of-hand, even purists may never know.

Following a one-car automobile accident, in which Bailey, in an alcoholic “black out”, murders the only witness to the crime, he crawls doggedly toward an overpass where, lost in a world of shadows, he intends to take one last final dark journey beyond this vale of tears (NOTE: In an ironic twist, the filmed location would be none other than the very selfsame bridge where screenwriter Wilson found himself in similar straits a mere three years before). However, before Bailey can take “the coward’s way out”, he sees a portly man, obviously quite intoxicated, floundering helplessly in the icy waters of the Bedford River. He rescues the man, who introduces himself as Clarence (played ably by Jim Backus), and mutters semi-incoherently about angels “getting their wings” and other such falderal, in a scene in which Kafka, definitely of the old school “show, don’t tell” variety of film director, shows us that the man is as inebriated as Bailey himself is prostratized by grief, although Bailey is inebriated as well. (NOTE: As true purists will verily realize, the character of Clarence is a thinly-veiled incarnation of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder, Dr. Bob Smith, Wilson’s former drinking buddy and future co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous).

The two “lovable lushes” go on to wreak all manner of havoc, against the backdrop of a blood red (in the remastered edition) moon, stopping only to “feed the beast“ at various juke joints and flophouses on Bedford Falls’ Lower East Side. One scene in particular shows just how far Bailey’s mind has slipped into the nether realms of alcoholism’s cruel stranglehold: In a bar, while drinking martinis and rum punch, Bailey insists that the bartender (a seminal Jack Nickolsen in his introductory role) knows him well, yet the younger man obviously has no recollection of Bailey at all. This tense mise en scene culminates in Bailey being sprayed by a seltzer bottle, wielded by the demonic Nickelson, and subsequently given the “bum’s rush”, along with Dr. Bob, into the swirling snowy mists of Bedford Falls. Even drunker than before, and out of his mind with grief, Bailey runs through Bedford Falls like a boozy juggernaut, terrorizing young and old alike. Even (in one particularly poignant scene) violently accosting an innocent young lady, insisting that she is his own wife, who is, in actuality, safely at home, doubtlessly out of her mind with worry. The drunken rampage of Bailey and Dr. Bob eventually necessitates the involvement of the police. As they take Bob into custody, Bailey, drunk beyond all reason, assaults a police officer and runs, drunk, back to the bridge itself. Back to where it all began.

Meanwhile, in his absence, deprived even more completely by the lack of a sober father figure, Bailey’s youngest son and namesake, in an attempt to impress his rolling stone of a patriarch, plummets through the ice of a nearby pond, to his untimely death. Bailey’s brother Harry also dies, while piloting planes for the United States Air Force in Korea, possibly due to excessive concern over his brother’s burgeoning alcoholism. The whereabouts of Bailey’s eldest son are still unknown, even to purists.

Then, in yet another bold move by Kafka, who is seemingly bending all rules of time and space, Bailey reaches into his pockets to find a pamphlet on alcoholism, entitled Zuzu’s Petals, which was, in real life, written by none other than Bill Wilson himself! I won’t reveal the exact circumstances of how this deuce ex machina plays out, so as not to spoil it for much-envied first viewers of Kafka’s “little movie that could”, but purists are no doubt chortling up their own sleeves at this point, as well we should. Bailey, upon reading the pamphlet, admits that he has a problem and runs back home to the open arms of his loving wife and children, who have already forgiven him. Holding Koko, with tears in his eyes, he vows never to drink again and then, as if to say to the spirit of Dr. Bob (who apparently passed away in police custody): “I’ll never engage in that sort of ‘drunk talk’ again”, Bailey winks at the sky and repeats Bob’s former drunken ramblings about angels and wings. Now his epitaph.

As I probably stated earlier in this review, It’s a Wonderful Life is an amazing little honey that can be enjoyed on different levels by both purists and more casual moviegoers alike, each in their own measure. Although produced in Wilson and Kafka’s days of smoky jazz clubs and breadlines, the honest and unflinching portrayal of alcohol abuse still rings true even now, in these, our own troubled times. Indeed, had this film been more commercially successful than it was, and watched by countless millions each and every holiday season, the world might be a much more sober place indeed. However, drunk or sober, it is a world Kafka and Wilson couldn’t have imagined even in their most fervent deleriums. Happy Holidays and God Bless!

Jim Bailey (Stewart) comes to believe in a power greater than himself, as Dr. Bob drinks on (still from the remastered, colorized version of the film, just as director Kafka intended).

Star Wars

Star Wars (1969) ***(1/2)

Ah, the hippy-dippy 1960's; if you can remember, you weren't there, right? Well, one thing I definitely remember from those times that were a' changin' is Jim Lucan's esoteric underground classic: Star Wars. Though he is primarily known as the one-hit wunderkind behind the success of the academy award-winning blockbuster Howard the Duck, Star Wars is regarded, by a small, yet tenaciously dedicated cadre of fans, as Lucan's ultimate tour de force. If you were fortunate enough to find a grindhouse, or a drive-in where this forgotten treasure may have played during its extremely-limited and all-too-short release, consider yourself very lucky indeed. Bootleg copies have circulated among those "in the know" for years now, but they are few and far between (I recently saw a grainy VHS edition, with Swedish subtitles, selling for $250.00 on the Internet!). I find it a shame, really, that virtual generations of filmgoers are deprived of what is truly an exquisite filmgoing experience. In a better world, Jim Lucan would be revered as a mighty storyteller and an intellectual powerhouse, his creative decisions above any reproach. In a perfect world, the merchandising rights alone would sustain him well into old age and beyond. Indeed, one would think that, given the nature of this film, it might have even warranted at least one single parody by the likes of Mad magazine.

This little gem flew right underneath the collective radar during the infamous summer of love, eclipsed by such inexplicably more popular offerings such as Akira Kurosawa's: Battle Beyond the Stars (1969), Disny's: The Hole (1967), and, of course, one of the most popular television shows of all time: Battlescar Galactica (1966-present). I know, I know, wags have been accusing Jim Lucan of shamelessly and blatantly ripping-off the groundbreaking television series for eons now, and one should have no problem whatsoever finding any number of angry, ill-informed diatribes on the subject that are low on factual information and high on innuendo and baseless slander. Like many a flower child of my era, I have fond memories of donning my coonskin cap and settling down of an evening to watch Battlescar Galactaca with my family, and then, in later and more turbulent years, watching it with my own children, and my children's children, but that fact does not detract in any way from the subtle majesty that is Jim Lucan's Star Wars. It isn't my place to compare and contrast these two equally brilliant, yet divergent, works of art; each stands on its own merit. Yet, at the end of my day, there is but one that is the victor, and that one is Star Wars. And it is here that I find myself a very vocal, yet extremely subdued and violated, minority.

Hardcore sci-fi (and science fantasy) fans have doubtless read of Lucan's struggles to get his little indy film off the ground, as well as the inspiring story of the vision that led to its conception. Rumor has it that, following a particularly heinous drag racing accident in Modesto, California, of which a young Lucan was the only survivor, he wandered, dejected, with only a notepad and a pencil for company. After forty days and nights in a Modesto desert, having ingested mass quantities of the rain forest hallucinogen, yage, young Lucan had a vision compelling him to write about his drag racing adventures, only set in outer space. Sitting on park benches and huddling against the elements near Laundromat vents, young Lucan shakily wrote out the first draft of what would eventually become Star Wars. Dejected and hungry, the young soon-to-be director was forced to eat some of the pages of the draft for nourishment. Years later, the remaining pages of that august first draft long forgotten, young Lucan took up a series of odd jobs, including running errands at a local radio station (XERB), home to radio personality, Wolfman Jack. On the way to the station, young Lucan found the stained and battered copy of the script underneath the seat of his Ford Thunderbird (a gift from his grandmother) and, utterly dismayed by what he perceived as a hopelessly bleak vision of a totalitarian space opera, he threw the document into a wastebasket at the station, only to have it rescued, unbeknownst to him, by Wolfman Jack's wife herself, who then gave it to Wolfman, who read the script over a period of three days and nights. Deeming it (and by proxy, young Lucan) a worthy financial venture, Mr. Jack, along with Harlan Corman and several unknown financial backers, provided young Lucan with the means necessary to see his burgeoning creation come to life, against all odds. Truly dedicated fans will also know that the hubristic young Lucan intended no fewer than thirteen Star Wars films to be released, one each year on Friday the 13th, over a period of thirteen years. Sadly, this did not take place. A long-awaited sequel, entitled The Revenge of the Phantom, was released in 1977, to even less fanfare than the original. An older, wiser Lucan wrote the script, but turned the directorial reins over to a young David Lynch. Other than one low-budget VHS release in 1985, The Revenge of the Phantom is largely forgotten by time, although copies do circulate on Internet sites such as "Your Tube" every so often.

The story of Star Wars, which takes place in a dystopian near-future, here in our own solar system, concerns itself largely with a young space drag racer named Luke Sky-walker (Jack Lloyd), who is a slave to a creature named Waddle, a Gungan (type of alien) from a desert planet. The film opens with a flashback to a race in which Sky-walker's very freedom itself is at stake. He wins his emancipation from the vile gangster, Jabba the Hut (alien), and is taken under the wing of a mystical Jedi magician with a laser sword named Obie-One Kenovi (Ralph Fiennes) and Obie-One's son and namesake (Sir Evan MacGregor). The film then cuts to a now fully-grown and middle-aged Sky-walker (Mike Hamill in a seminal performance) who is staring off into the twin suns of his mysterious world, not far from our own, reminiscing about his days as a young slave. His mother and father call him to the house to show him the two new robots ("androids") they purchased from some wandering monks. Before his very eyes, his parents die in a fire started by the vindictive monks and Sky-walker is hit over the head by one of the evil creatures, losing consciousness. Thus follows one of the film's many dream sequences, as Sky-walker finds himself in an old west saloon populated by all manner of alien creatures (ably created by special effects wizard Ray Harryhouse) and Maude's Bea Arthur, who launches into a surreal song and dance number in one of the film's few comedic highlights. He later wakes in a spaceship, piloted by a space pirate named Captain Hansalo (Richard Dreyfuss), Obie-One's father (Sir Alvin Guiness), and a talking lion. In what was surely a bold move at the time, Lucan chose to tell his story out of sequence, flitting amidst the past, present, and future nearly effortlessly (a technique that would later be employed by director Quintin Tantarro in his own film: Pulp Fiction. Tarantarro has admitted Lucan's influence, maintaining that his film serves as a rare homage of sorts), as we are treated to a future vision of the film's arch villain, Dark Vader, a black-helmeted Jedi magician (ably voiced by Scatman Crothers), who boards a ship inhabited by a group of rebel freedom fighters. Enigmatically, the two "androids" Luke's parents purchased are aboard the ship as well, for reasons unknown. Vader then kills Obie-One's father, who mysteriously disappears into thin air, never to be seen, or heard from, again. And all this in only the first twenty minutes of this underrated cult classic!

I don't want to give away too much of the plot. So many characters and dream sequences! The special effects, by Lucan and Wolfman Jack's own company: Industrial Light and Machine, are, in my opinion, above and beyond anything up to that point (including the effects of the over-inflated assmunching Battlescar Galactaca). The rousing and bombastic musical score by a young Don Williams foreshadows the wonderful peaks of achievement he would reach on such later films as Steven Steinburg's Raiders of the Last Ark and Roger Semekis’s I’m Back From the Future. The supplemental songs by such luminaries as Bill Haley, the Silhouettes, and Queen’s Freddy Mercury also complement the space drag racing scenes perfectly; it's like you're riding along with them, with a four-on-the-floor (whatever that is) and a cold brew between your legs. The gritty and realistic storyline takes us through the deserted reaches of a desert planet, the icy wastes of an ice planet and the watery depths of a water planet (not to mention a fire planet, and a grass, trees and earth planet). All in glorious 3-D!!!

*** SPOILER ALERT!!!!! ***

The main theme of Star Wars concerns itself with Luke Sky-walker's eventual turn to evil, in which, burned beyond all recognition when a space station he is on explodes, he is forced to don the black suit, cape, and breathing apparatus, in order to stay alive and, in a twist that has influenced countless other underground films, becomes the cruel warlord Dark Vader, who we saw earlier in several glimpses into the shadowy future. Though this transformation is shocking, it will fail to take more astute viewers by complete surprise as the event is hinted at in an earlier dream sequence in which Sky-walker befriends a strange green creature called a Yoda (alien, puppeted ably by master puppeteer Jim Henson) on a swamp planet and sees his own face within Dark Vader's helmet. Later in the film, Sky-walker is frozen in a magical substance called carbon-like, by the vile gangster Jabba the Hut (alien), and is then placed in a healing tank by his loving wife, Padawan (Natalie Fincher), which resores his youthful appearance and renders the breathing apparatus unnecessary. However, his victory over his personal struggles will be short-lived as a rogue Jedi magician (Wesley Snipes) electrocutes him using Jedi magic and he becomes even more disfigured than before. Then, in a twist never (to my knowledge) seen before or since, Sky-walker proclaims himself an evil overlord named Lord Palpatatin--thus surpassing any and all evil he had ever been! This plays out in one of the most surreal dream sequences I've ever witnessed: Sky-walker fighting himself as Vader, while himself as Lord Palpatate watches (Whew! Confused yet? :) --it simply has to be seen to be believed. His soul is irrevocably lost at this point and he eventually creates an army of clone warriors (including one clone designed to look exactly like his former incarnation, Dark Vader). In what may be the most downbeat ending since Requiem for a Dream, the film closes with Palpatin and his Vader clone building an identical space station to the one that disfigured him in the first place. It appears that evil wins the day!


Sky-walker/Vader/Palpatin's loving wife, Padawan, is with child. She flees aboard an escape pod, with the two "androids" and finds refuge on a desert planet (Luke’s home world, Dantooine), raising her child (Anikin Sky-Walker) with Obie-One's grandson and the two "androids". The film ends with Padawan and Obie-One's grandson holding the infant Anikin and gazing out at the twin suns of the desert planet, Dantooine, just as Luke Sky-walker was at the beginning of this eight-hour tour-de-force. We've come full circle. So, judging by the ending of the first film, it appears that Lucan was definitely paving the way for a sequel with the patented happy ending that American audiences have grown to love and trust. And that may well have been the case, had the original film existed somewhere beyond the crippling reach of Battlescar Galactica’s foul and monstrous shadow. I have seen The Revenge of the Phantom, and intend to dedicate a future installment to unraveling its intricate tapestry, but for now, suffice it to say that young Anikin does indeed grow up well and brings balance to the turbulent dystopia of earth's near future.

*** SPOILER ALERT!!!! ***

My only complaint regarding the film (and again, this could have something to do with the influence of Battlescar Galactica) is a minor plot thread that is left hanging, and is not resolved in the sequel either. That would be the question of Luke Sky-walker's parentage. It is revealed by Obie One's great-grandfather (during a dream sequence on the snow and ice planet, Dantooine) that Luke's true father is still alive and is a first rate star pilot. It is implied heavily throughout the course of the narrative that Luke's father's identity will be revealed, but Lucan (again, probably due to budgetary constraints caused by Battlescar Galactica’s overbearing stranglehold on the science fantasy market) simply leaves the question of Luke's heritage wide open. There is one emotionally-charged scene, about halfway through the sprawling epic, in which Luke finds himself embroiled in a laser sword battle with himself as the dark-helmeted Vader, where his “dream-self” informs him that he is his own father just before cutting off Sky-walker’s hand in an unusually heavy-handed (no pun intended) display of symbolism on the part of Lucan. He awakens on a star cruiser, in the arms of his loving wife Padawan, only to find that his hand is still there, and it was only a dream. So, we know nothing except the fact that, whoever his father is, he's a first rate pilot. Now, in the Star Wars universe, that leaves us with quite a few candidates, however, my own dark horse in the running is Captain Hansalo, although I haven't ruled out Hansalo's own father, Lord Calvin Ristian (Billy Jo Williams) or Waddo (Gungan, alien) himself, though I sheepishly admit that the latter is merely a pet theory and is probably not very likely. I will have more to say about this in my next installment: "Comparing and Contrasting The Revenge of the Phantom with Battlescar Galactica, Season Seven." 'Til then, "May the force be with you--beep, beep, bloop" ("android").

In one of many nightmarishly surreal dream sequences, Luke Sky-walker (Mark Hamish) unmasks his Vader persona to see his corrupted future self underneath.

Citizen Cain

Citizen Cain (1922) ***(1/2)

A much-overlooked "diamond in the rough" from the roaring 20's, this film will always have a special place in my heart. Written by, directed by, and starring a young Joseph Cotton, Citizen Caine was definitely an underground success and its influence can still be seen on directors as diverse as Michael Bay and Donald Lynch. If you can locate a copy of this elusive cult classic, I would recommend buying it at once. Trust me, you won't regret it, even though it was filmed in black and white and not color, or Technicolor, due to budgetary restraints. Given the fact that the film was given critical acclaim by Hearst Press, a powerhouse at the time, and the fact that it was the first “talkie” in world history, I find it hard to believe that it failed to resonate with the audience of its day and that it remains so utterly neglected and forgotten now. Even film schools seem to have virtually no knowledge of this esoteric piece of cinematic history, although I feel their students could benefit greatly by studying the lush cinematography, and more than adequate acting and writing, even though the film does remain stylistically linked to its own particular time and place; it is a very conventional, albeit compelling, work of art. Nothing visually sets it apart from its contemporaries, such as Crowley's: Man Hits Thumb With Hammer (1921) and Von Stryker's: Flying Machines (They've all Got Flying Machines and They're Trying to Fly With Those Flying Machines) (1922), yet there's something about Citizen Cane's doe-eyed innocence that inexplicably places itself above and beyond the reach of those other silver screen classics. It also has the distinction of being the very first attempt in film history at a straight biographical narrative, that of the 33rd President of the United States; a lofty task by Tinselstown’s standards even today. However, I would easily rank it among the top five most accurate and compelling biographical dramas ever produced, along with Corpola's: Raging Bull and Pat Morita's: The Karate Kid.

The plot concerns the happy-go-lucky ups and downs of the film's titular, but miserly hero: Charles Bosworth Cain (played expertly by a young Joseph Cotton) and his best friend, Josiah Welles (played by an equally-young, yet equally-talented Orson Bean), as the two engage in a number of business ventures and orchestrate two world wars, with each always trying to "one up" the other. After the title character's untimely death from cancer, mid-way through the story, we are treated to a rousing Busby Berkely-esque song and dance number through which is revealed Kain's enigmatic last word: "Rosebaum". A reporter from the National Enquirer is then dispatched to find out exactly what happened to a snow globe dropped by Cain in his final moments. Rumors abound that the base of the object contains a map to an enchanted castle in Xanadu, thought to contain treasures beyond all imagining, and there is speculation that "Rosebaum" may be the secret password needed to open the magically-sealed gate. Along the way, we are treated to various incarnations of Kane (including one animated version, ala a fledgling Ub Iwerks), via interviews conducted by the reporter with those who knew him best, including his uncle (Sir Ben Kingsley), who owned the bank where Kayne got his start, and his mother, a once world-renowned opera singer who eventually winds up tending bar in the most remote jungles of South America. She is later killed, along with Cane's son (who previously appears riding a sled in one of the film's many flashbacks), in an automobile accident on the way to the hidden castle at Xanadu. This segues nicely into Kain's eventual scene of redemption (the film's only), as he destroys all of the furniture in the opera house, but manages to surreptitiously hide the map to Xanadu in the base of the snow globe, which he then secures in his waistcoat pocket, where it will be discovered upon his death, shattered and ultimately useless.

The various interviewees all remember Kaine fondly and their recollections each serve to paint a vastly different interpretation of the man, depending upon who is being interviewed at the time (a device sometimes referred to in the trade as "pulling a Keyzer Sose", from the 1994 film of the same name). Cayne is eventually elected President of the United States, after exposing the infidelity of his underhanded opponent (Raymond Burr) and here the film strives for accuracy in every way; a wise move indeed, as the real-life President Kane's many sweeping reforms and political exploits are perhaps even better known today than they were against the backdrop of his own time. We are treated to actual newsreel footage of historical personages (such as Adolf Hitler and Chairman Mao) blended seamlessly with shots of Cotton himself (a device sometimes referred to in the trade as "Gumping it up", named after the Steven Steinburg holiday classic: Forest Gump). We also see rare footage of the real-life Noah's ark (this footage would also be appropriated by Steinburg in his 1980's era classic: Raiders of the Last Ark. I swear--you could make a "six degrees of separation" game out of the similarities between Cotton and Steinburg), and the digging of the Panama Canal.

My complaints regarding this tour-de-force are few, but sadly do exist. One small gripe was the fact that so much is made of Cayne's final word and then it seemed that, by the end of the film, it had simply ceased to be a concern, once the snow globe was found to have been destroyed. I understand that the destruction of the map itself means that the password would be of little, if any use, however, I did find myself wondering exactly what did "Rosebaum" mean and what was the word's connection to Kaine's life. Because the reporter fails to find out the meaning of the cryptic shibboleth, we, the viewers, also ultimately miss out. Who knows? Had the film not been so sorely neglected by scholars of the craft, there might be countless theories and Internet forums dedicated to this very question. Sadly, it remains one of filmdom's "unsolved mysteries", like whatever happened to Baby Jane, or the true identity of Luke Skywalker's father (see my review on Jim Lucan's: Star Wars for my own thoughts regarding this particular enigma). It is the unbridled opinion of this reviewer that, if you see only one silent-era film this year, make it Citizen Cain. The plot twists and edge-of-your-seat suspense more than make up for the lack of color and the somewhat conventional (yet hauntingly adequate) cinematography. And, if you have any theories of your own regarding the true identity of "Rosebaum", please feel free to chime in below.

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that some reviewers have been unfavorably comparing Citizen Kaine to John Huston's own auteur-driven vehicle: There Will Be Blood. This erroneous comparison is what, in this reviewer's humble opinion, detracted greatly from Kaine's own box office success, due largely to the fact that Huston's film premiered a mere two months earlier, in December, 1921. Had Cotton the foresight to release his own film when he had originally intended, I have little doubt that the entire face of cinematic history would have been altered for all time. Instead, unsatisfied with the special effects used to simulate Caine's appearance in the newsreel footage, Cotton opted to wait until he could use the cutting edge prototype equipment created by his friend Jim Lucan's ILM studios, thus delaying the film by a full six months, just enough time for Huston to release his glorious "Technicolor dreamcoat" amidst much bombast and ballyhoo, relegating Citizen Kaine to second-stringer status for all time. In my opinion, comparing the two films is like comparing apples and pears. While both deal with a main character's personal hell-bent struggle for world dominance, the success of Huston's film relied largely upon mankind's own fears amidst the zeitgeist of the troubled jazz age: looming world wars, unprecedented financial ruin, the specter of drug abuse and violence; a world all too familiar to even the most naive of moviegoers in its day. Citizen Cane provided audiences with a much more fantastical vision, light on characterization, and didn't rely upon futuristic camera angles and cinematic trickery as did Huston's blockbuster. This is, ultimately, where Caine failed commercialy, by giving the audience of its day perhaps too much credit for its own good. (However, I do concede that Cotton likely paid homage to Albert Packer's classic film adaptation of Pink Floyd's Broadway musical: The Wall, during the scene in which Charles Cayne destroys every stick of furniture in his childhood home.)

Joseph Cotton as Charles Bosworth Cane.