Without A Clue 1988 ****

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‘How are things on the sub-continent?’ is a phrase that looms large in my notes for Without A Clue, a Sherlock Holmes spoof from 1988. It’s uttered by Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine), an actor hired by Dr Watson (Ben Kingsley) to play the role of the Baker Street detective, a fictional character of his own invention. It’s a line that evokes the casual, avuncular racism of a bygone era, and one of a number of neat touches that make Without A Clue something of a secret delight.

Without A Clue was poorly reviewed and found few takers, and yet it’s a very clever take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character. Caine and Kingsley relish the challenge of flipping their characters; Holmes is dominant in public, but is cowed and bullied in private. Watson, by contrast, has to maintain a meek façade when solving crimes, but is quick to asset his intellect when the two are left alone together. And there’s a crime to be solved; stolen, or rather switched bank-plates means that the Bank of England have been accidentally issuing forgeries, while the criminals concerned have the ability to make real banknotes. Moriarty (Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Paul Freeman) is, of course, at the heart of the scandal, with Lestrade (Jeffrey Jones) less than hot on his trail.

A short but delightful scene with Norman Greenhough (Peter Cook), the real-life publisher of The Strand Magazine, establishes that Without A Clue knows it’s stuff, and it’s also nice to see such Conan Doyle ephemera like the Baker Street Irregulars make an appearance. Without a Clue didn’t offer the sex or anti-authority comedy that was fashionable in the 1980’s, but it’s a minor delight, well performed and with a fresh, charming take on beloved characters.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/without-a-clue/id872645010

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Easy Money 1983 ***

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It was a sign of the times that Rodney Dangerfield was rejected for inclusion by the American Academy; Caddyshack is one of the great comedies of the 80’s, or any era, and Dangerfield parlayed his bug-eyed class warfare shtick to several successful films including Back to School and Easy Money, both of which were number one box-office hits. There’s pretty much no outlet for this kind of film in 2019, yet Dangerfield’s routines, with a comedy personal firmly honed from decades of club and tv work, still work well today.

Easy Money, co-written by PJ O’Rourke and directed by James Signorelli, takes a long time to get to a familiar situation; Monty loves booze, spliffs, over-eating and over-indulging; when he discovers his mother-in-law has passed away, he’s thrilled at the prospect of increased freedom, but her passing comes with a catch; Monty has three months to reform his character, or he won’t get a share of the old bird’s loot. It takes about 40 minutes of establishing Monty’s vices before we cue predictable but effective gags about unattractive salads, with Joe Pesci on hand as Monty’s encouraging pal, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Monty’s daughter, and Jeffrey Jones as his rival. Tom Noonan turns up in a role clearly intended for Bill Murray, and there’s a fair roster of talent involved.

Dangerfield’s comedy largely came from a concerted attack on snobbery, which makes it ironic that his work wasn’t valued by an atrophied elite who failed to move with the times. Like Groucho Marx, Dangerfield didn’t fancy any club that would accept him as a member, and refused the Academy’s offer when they final came back to him. No matter; Dangerfield laughed all the way to the back, and his comic personal is shown in good form here; it’s reckless, irresponsible fun. Comes complete with a Billy Joel title song.

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/movie/easy-money-1983/id868880821

Race With The Devil 1975 ***

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A film-loving friend suggested trying to imagine the definitive 70’s movie; The Great Smokey Mountain Carquake and Orangutan In a Trans-am were the (fictional) winning entries. Race with the Devil would do just as well; Jack Starrett’s 1975 horror-action hybrid attempts to capture the mid-70’s angst by fusing demonology with hard driving; the late Peter Fonda was the ideal centre for this film. Roger Marsh (Fonda) and his pal Frank (Warren Oates) grab their girls (Loretta Swit and Lara Parker) and head into the desert with their RV and motorbikes, only to come across Satanists; the result is, quite literally, a race with the devil. There’s a few staples of 70’s cinema here, from distrust of authorities to a downbeat ending, but there’s also a sense of fun; if you mash up Deliverance, Easy Rider and The Exorcist, this is exactly what you get.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/race-with-the-devil/id759908747

High Life 2018 ***

Every year, the cinematic season brings at least one psychedelic freak out, and following on the coat-tales of mother!, Claire Denis’s super-weird and defiantly original High Life arrives to test the patience of the unwary. Monte (Robert Pattinson) is a criminal who joins a group of convicts working in space, harvesting black holes in a way that’s not entirely clear. Due to the distances involved, it’s a suicide mission, although Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche) is seeking a loophole through her experiments with some form of artificial insemination. Their story is bookended with lengthy framing scenes involving Monte clearing the dead-bodies of the crew out of the ship, so there’s no suspense about the outcome, only how Monte and the crew got to this point. Throw in Mia Goth and Andre 3000 and you’ve got a very odd package for Denis’s first English language film, which plays down the conventions of sci-fi in favour of something rather more elusive. Pattinson is excellent as ever, and even if the scripts reflections on human sexuality are unclear, High Life has an uncompromising stance on the deadly DNA of selfish human behaviour.

 

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/high-life/id1456868201

The Man In The Chair 2007 ***

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There’s not much in director Michael Schroeder’s CV to suggest he was capable of pulling off an off-beat valentine to the movies like The Man in The Chair; the director of Cyborg 2 pulled off a career high when he pulled together an accomplished cast including Christopher Plummer, Robert Wagner and M Emmet Walsh as a group of Hollywood veterans who get together to help young aspiring LA film-maker Cameron (Michael Angarano) realise his dream. Schroeder over-eggs the flashy style of the direction, but coaxes strong performances from his cast, particularly Walsh who has a nice scene in which he discovers the value of the internet in a public library. Wagner also has a strong turn as a mogul who funds the enterprise, but Plummer takes centre-stage; his performance here as Flash is arguably better than his Oscar-winning turn in Beginners.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/man-in-the-chair/id300216503

Becket 1964 ***

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Taking inspiration from Jean Anouihl’s play, Peter Glenville’s 1964 drama derives its story from one of the key clashes between church and state. Henry II (Peter O’Toole) has a great friendship with Thomas Becket (Richard Burton); they enjoy a drink, and carousing with women, even though Thomas has leanings towards the church. Henry imagines that making his friend Archbishop will allow him to have his own behaviors rubber-stamped by the clergy, but he reckons without Thomas Becket’s strong beliefs, and the schism between the two men threatens to tear the roles of state and church apart. Becket as a film clearly plays fast and loose with historical detail, but the heavyweight performances, as well as a brief but impressive appearance from Sir John Gielgud, make for compelling viewing.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/becket/id588317095

Thirteen Days 2000 ***

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Kevin Costner’s return to the Kennedy ethos didn’t make the same cultural impact as Oliver Stone’s JFK; nonetheless, Roger Donaldson’s evocation of White House drama during the Cuban missile crisis is one of cinema’s more reflective history lessons. The strangely accented Kenny O’Donnell (Costner) is caught up in the angst as JFK Bruce Greenwood) and RFK (Steven Culp) ague about the best course of action to take, with the future of the world at stake. Thirteen Days has a couple of well-stages action scenes involving U2 spy-planes, but it’s all the stronger for being a claustrophobic talkfest; it was diplomacy that resolves the Cold war issues, and Thirteen Days is a respectful and conscientious look at one of the most startling chapters of world history.
https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/thirteen-days/id653326503