It now looks as though the year will end before I can cover everything I’ve seen this year. So, don’t be surprised if there seems to be some serious cramming in this last week of 2013.
Today in the Journal, we look at everything from obscure cult studio pics to demonic horror to modern holiday films to one of the most controversial films of the year. Enjoy the list and Happy Holidays!
The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.
What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals?
In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?
FILM GEEK JOURNAL – ENTRY 90
ASSIGNMENT TO KILL (1968) – Richard Cutting (Patrick O’Neal) is a specialist who investigates possible crimes for captains of industry in a no-nonsense manner. An insurance company tasks him with investigating the alleged death of a man accused of sinking his own ships for profit. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in a mystery that quickly puts him against a criminal mastermind’s personal enforcer (Herbert Lom). What Cutting also doesn’t depend on is Dominique, the quirky young woman with a love for adventure and a bigger conscience than Cutting. A surprise plot twist (spoiled by the American poster and the cover to the Warner Archive DVD, so steer clear of those) increases the stakes.
Sheldon Reynolds is the man in charge of writing and directing ASSIGNMENT TO KILL. It’s one of only a few films he wrote or directed, choosing instead to spend most of his time in television. This is surprising because while his old SHERLOCK HOLMES television series is indeed great, Reynolds has crafted a great script, full of amazing dialogue. The pacing never lets up. If the shots aren’t anything stellar, it can be forgiven when you realize how well Reynolds handles the actors. Everyone interacts with such great chemistry that there isn’t a mismatch in the bunch. ASSIGNMENT TO KILL winds up being a thoroughly enjoyable diversion.
But the real delight of the film is Joan Hackett as Dominique. It’s impossible not to fall in love with her character, one Hackett brings to vibrant life. I could have seen a dozen films centered around this character and never gotten bored. Highly Recommended.
THE TRAVELING EXECUTIONER (1970) – Jonas Candide (Stacy Keach) is a con-man who makes his living as a traveling executioner. He goes from prison to prison with his electric chair, carrying out executions with flair and tender loving care. When a woman (Marianna Hill) is scheduled to be executed, Candide falls under her spell and sets up a number of cons in order to save her from the big zap.
Jack Smight’s direction of this dark comedy is pretty standard in THE TRAVELING EXECUTIONER. But Keach is anything but. Keach is one of our most underrated actors as far as I’m concerned and he owns every frame of this film. His Candide is always wheeling and dealing, even as he is very obviously being conned himself. And yet, he is not without conscience. When it comes time to put people to death, he puts their mind at ease with a monologue about the Fields of Ambrosia. That it is something he invented out of whole cloth and repeats at every execution does not diminish the empathy he seems to feel each time. Keach is a powerhouse in a film that manages to be suspenseful, dramatic and pretty damn funny too. Highly Recommended.
THE NORSEMAN (1978) – The Vikings come to America, in search of their king which went missing. The Vikings quickly encounter the whitest Indians you’ve ever seen, who greet the Vikes by slaughtering them. Worse yet, the king and his surviving crew have been blinded and are being held captive by the Iriquois. Yes, it’s the story of the Viking conquest of America from the point of view of the invaders, which the indegenous people cast as the villains.
This alone would be enough to make THE NORSEMAN seem like a strange film to modern audiences. But what really makes this of interest for psychotronic fans is the eclectic cast. In the lead as the great Viking warrior Thorvald is none other than Lee Majors, fresh off the success of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. Though Majors commits to the part, he does not have the range to tackle the role of the Norseman any more than John Wayne had the range to tackle Genghis Khan in THE CONQUERER. And believe me, Wayne is a much better actor than Majors. Instead, Steve Austin doesn’t manage to conceal his Southern accent while spouting purple prose about warfare and the future of the tribe. Also in the film is Cornel Wilde, whose character seems like will be allowed to do more than he ultimately is. Jack Elam hilariously portrays a seer listed in the credits as “Death Dreamer,” and for my money, is the highpoint of the film.
Still, THE NORSEMAN is fascinating to watch and moves along nicely. It’s directed by Charles B. Pierce, who brings his docudrama feel from films like THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN and melds it with his penchant for historical fiction like GREYEAGLE. It’s not a great movie, but it is a moderately entertaining one. Barely Recommended.
THE UNHOLY (1988) – While trying to save a man from jumping to his death, Father Dennis (Ben Cross) is thrown from a 14-story building. Miraculously, he survives the fall without any injuries. This tells church elders what they need – Father Dennis has been chosen to do battle with a demon who kills people in the act of sinning, thus insuring they spend eternity in Hell. Dennis reopens a church whose previous priests have all fallen at the hands of the demon. He meets a troubled young woman (Claudia Robinson) who is convinced that her flamboyant boss (William Russ) may be the Devil himself. Dennis is pulled in a number of different directions as he comes to terms with what he must do.
THE UNHOLY is another one of those films I call “fascinating failures.” From beginning to end, there are numerous indications that could have been a bona fide horror classic along the same lines of THE EXORCIST and THE OMEN. And yet, from beginning to end, THE UNHOLY squanders every single opportunity. Camilo Pila’s direction is poor and he ruins several instances where there could have been genuine suspense. The script needed a few more drafts to really work. Many of the characters require far more depth and the film could have easily been a half hour longer. When Hell really is unleashed, the results are more laughable than frightening. THE UNHOLY is interesting to watch to wonder what could have been. Right now, it’s just a tragedy of missed opportunities. Awful.
LOVE ACTUALLY (2003) – Richard Curtis’ film weaves a tapestry of various characters navigating love and loss in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In the ten years since its release, LOVE ACTUALLY has already developed quite a bit of a cult following. It took me until now to actually sit down and watch the film, mainly because I have been burned by too many romantic comedies. I tend to avoid the genre like the plague because for every SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, it seems like there are a hundred LEAP YEARs. Add to this that Garry Marshall took the basic premise of LOVE ACTUALLY and created the horrible films, VALENTINE’S DAY and NEW YEAR’S EVE (Honestly, how can someone as intelligent and funny as Marshall direct so many films that are neither smart nor funny?). Can you blame me for being suspicious?
Indeed, there are parts of LOVE ACTUALLY that are too precious by half. Remarkably, these aren’t so much in the easy targets such as Hugh Grant playing a lovestruck Prime Minister or Liam Neeson trying to teach his 10 year-old stepson how to woo the girl of his dreams. Rather, it’s in the stories that don’t seem to go anywhere. The idea of the guy who wants to go to America in order to get laid is quite funny. But really that’s the extent of the joke and it isn’t worth revisiting. Because of these sojourns, we’re left waiting a long time to get back to some of the more interesting storylines. Likewise, other stories such as Andrew Lincoln bearing a torch for his best friend’s new bride (Keira Knightley) aren’t given enough screen time.
LOVE ACTUALLY is a salute to love – romantic, familial and fraternal. And in this goal, it works. The feel good vibe comes through and when the film was over, I got the warm fuzzies. Even if some of it was a bit corny. Recommended.
TWO FRONT TEETH (2008) – Noel (Megan Pearson) is a crass woman who is cheating on her milquetoast husband Gabriel (Johnny Francis Wolf). But her tryst is interrupted when her lover is slaughtered by a group of murderous elves. Gabriel comes to the rescue and the two flee from the invaders from the North Pole. It seems that Santa and his elves are actually forces of evil who have delighted as America turns Christmas into a celebration of materialism instead of the holy day it started out as. Yes, it’s FOX News’ “War On Christmas” B.S. Turned up to its natural and satirical extreme.
If only the film were as entertaining as its premise. Unfortunately, Wolf really is boring in the lead and you can hardly blame his wife for looking for a little strange elsewhere. The directors try to make things work on a very low budget, but the muted color palette hardly serves a film which should be bursting with Christmas garishness. There were a lot of great ideas in this film, but they didn’t come off quite right.
Thankfully, Megan Pearson is very entertaining in her role. She could have easily played this as an emotionally unstable harpy and a less intuitive actress might have done just that. But in Pearson’s hands, Noel is funny, ascerbic and vulnerable in all the right places. Disappointing.
SPRING BREAKERS (2013) – A group of bored girls want to break away from their boring town and thus have built up the allure of spring break in a tropical paradise to almost mythic importance. When they can’t get the funds for the trip, they straight-up rob a restaurant for the funds. Once they reach Florida (as a matter of fact, the same neighborhood I now call home), they indeed enjoy all the dancing, booze, drugs, sex and partying spring break has to offer. When their party is busted, they are looking reality in the face for the first time.
That is when they are saved by a self-aggrandizing pimp named Alien (James Franco). He lures the girls in with the promise that it can be spring break forever. But Alien’s lifestyle starts to catch up with them as their lives become endangered by the pitfalls of always living on the edge.
Harmony Korrine’s film is being cited by many as a brilliant work of art. I’m here to state that I flat-out don’t understand the praise being heaped on SPRING BREAKERS. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautifully shot film. Some of the performances, particularly Selena Gomez (who disappears after 45 minutes) and Franco are quite good. But the film enjoys lingering over the party scene so much that it fails to inject anything else in it. Korrine tries to reclaim his avant-garde roots by playing different takes of the same scene over and over again, ad nauseam. When that doesn’t work, he simply plays the same scene over and over again. I get it. It’s meant to create a hypnotic, dream-like effect, but it didn’t work for me.
There was great potential here. After all, the goals of escape from the girls’ dull lives – any escape – seemed of such importance that SPRING BREAKERS seemed to be trying to saying something profound. And what things they could say. How now matter how extreme you get, there is always someone willing to go further. How relationships form amongst outlaws, barely concealing the loneliness that seems so obvious to the viewer. And most intriguingly, how in the modern age, the quest for debauchery has become the new quest for enlightenment, a life of no consequences being the ideal rather than a life of inner fulfillment. All of these potential explorations are left behind as Korrine continues to masturbate with the camera. In the end, SPRING BREAKERS is just as empty as the life it portrays. Awful.
Number of films covered in the Journal so far: 376
Miss any of the previous Journal entries? Check them out here!
And tune into my new web series, Moviocrity! Christmas episode now available!