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.

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Judy 2019 ****

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There’s now a substantial awards season sub-genre of evocations of the lives of the rich and famous. Usually with the BBC logo on the front, these films are cheaply made, with a few period locations, and have the feeling of vanity projects for the stars. So from Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool to Stan and Ollie via My Week With Marilyn, these impersonations usually feel like they’ve been created to generate some awards traction; Rupert Goold’s Judy is easily the pick of the bunch so far.

The key factor here is Renee Zellweger, who has had plenty of snippy articles written about her appearance in the past, and seems to have been able to channel that negative energy into a remarkable, heartfelt portrait of a star in decline. With ex-husbands Sidney Lufts (Rufus Sewell) and new lover Mickey Deans (Finn Witrock) in tow, Judy Garland and her kids arrive in London cica 1968 to play a series of shows under the auspices of entrepreneur Lord Delfont (Michael Gambon). The shows are a risk, and Lonnie Donnegan waits backstage ready to fill in if Garland can’t continue with her act.

Booze and pills both enable and disable Garland’s performance, and triumph and disaster seem to be interlinked as the performances go from hit to miss. Of course, those in the audience for these London shows knew all about the star’s reputation, and there’s an element of a bear-pit here that partially explains how quickly the audience’s ire rises. Garland herself took advantage of the tension, tailoring her stage-act to deliberately raise questions about her fitness to perform. Tom Edge’s screenplay, taken from Peter Quilter’s stage-play, makes no bones about Garland having been abused from an early age in various ways, but what makes this incarnation fly is that Garland is portrayed, not as a victim, but as someone who is able to understand and articulate her own experiences and fight back

The musical scenes are very strong, with Zellweger’s voice up to scratch, and a real edge as we, like the audience, wait to see if Garland will be on song or not. There’s a few show-biz cliches here, but as Zellweger knocks it out of the park as a heart-breaking, self-aware middle-aged heroine, this is about as good as a film on this subject can be.

Sextette 1978 ***

Someone, somewhere at Amazon Prime, with over a century of cinematic history to choose from, is coming up with Sextette as their new release on their streaming service. With Disney, Apple and Warners all launching their own platforms, it’s pretty odd that this legendary 1978 clunker should be the plastic jewel in Amazon’s Fall 2019 line-up. Sextette had been a stage vehicle for Mae West from 1961, and it’s clear that the most, or only remarkable thing about it was the star. A film version was announced in 1970, but by the time it got in front of the camera in 1978, West was in her eighties and somewhat less that the sin-sational broad promised on the posters. West certainly had presence, but she moves like a parking hovercraft and delivers her lines as if she’s never formed a sentence before, a phenomena that has inspired a number of urban legends. But there’s many a film in which an aged male actor froths over young women, so Sextette’s notion of having West meet six of her previous young husbands while staying at a London hotel isn’t necessarily awful. But Sextette is awful, and the contents read like a crime sheet. How about Mae West and Timothy Dalton performing Love Will Keep Us Together? Or West directing a flirtatious performance of Happy Birthday Sweet Twenty-One to the entire US Athletics team? Tony Curtis as a diplomat called Sexy Alexi? How about random cameos from Dom Deluise, Ringo Starr, Walter Pigeon, Keith Moon, Alice Cooper and George Raft? Perhaps to compensate for the star’s immobility, all concerned give inhibited performances that must now be the subject of some regret. Hughes’s shambolic film switches gears with ease, balancing casual racism with tremendous homophobia while the cast pick their way through such mind-numbing innuendos as ‘Have you seen Big Ben? / I hardly know the man!’ Sextette is a car-crash of a film that has to be seen to be believed, filmed in a process which should be called Awful-o-Vision which makes everything look like its filmed through a screen door. After ninety minutes, you’ll feel like you’ve been trapped in Mae West’s boudoir with an assortment of 70’s glitterati; not pleasant, but an experience that you’ll never forget. Like the Mae-Goes-Disco version of Baby Face that climaxes the film, it burns it way into your consciousness, leaving you changed inside forever.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw *** 2019

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There’s never been a Fast & Furious film that wasn’t likeable in some way; there have been genuine rewards those hardly souls who gathered round the flaming dumpster fire of 2 Fast 2 Furious, complete with it’s interactive DVD opening, allowing you to join the story has various characters. For the record, the best are probably the decidedly untypically small-scale Tokyo Drift and the epic Rio Heist, but there’s decent action scenes in them all. These are old-fashioned popcorn movies, self-contained, drawing in fading stars like magnets, leavened with crude humour and stereotypes, topped off with doses of sentiment about family; this latest has a speech about how machines are not important that’s about as hypocritical as Rocky IV’s focus on Russian technology vs spartan American training techniques; ie the picture is completely inverted.

Fast and Furious is largely about the toys, but there need to be men to drive them, and with Paul Walker’s demise, these men must be bald and middle aged. Vin Diesel presumably has other things to do, so The Rock and Jason Stratham are drafted in to fuel the testosterone. Both have charisma and a great comic touch, but Hobbs and Shaw doesn’t make much of these natural resources, nor do much with Idris Elba’s superhuman villain. Taking the family theme from the last few Fast movies, the focus is on Shaw’s sister (Vanessa Kirkby) who has injected herself with some kind of plague virus that might end all human life. Hobbs and Shaw put aside their differences to save her, turning to Hobbs’s mother and brother in Samoa. The climax involves a clutch of vehicles attached to a helicopter over a cliff-edge; in the days of CGI screen-work, there’s no sense of danger involved, just excess. Other set pieces, on the side of a London building, a chase around the streets of Glasgow (doubling for London), a disused factory in Moscow, are impressive without offering anything unique.

Ryan Reynolds, presumably as a favour to director Deadpool director David Leitch, gets dragged into the ongoing action, as does Helen Mirren. It would be nice to think that a few of Hobbs and Shaw’s audience might feel inspired to see Mirren’s earlier work, like Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man or Age of Consent. She’s here, one supposes, as a sop to older audiences dragged along by their kids, and puts on a ridiculous accent as some kind of gangster fairy godmother. She’s having a laugh, which is probably the only thing to do in such ridiculous circumstances.

Holmes & Watson 2018 ***

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Some films seem destined to be whipping boys; like Bohemian Rhapsody, Holmes & Watson had Sasha Baron Cohen for a lead for a while, only to be reworked for the established duo of Will Ferrell and John C Reilly, from Step-Brothers and Talladega Nights. The public flocked to those films while shunning Etan Cohen’s take on Conan Doyle’s character, and yet it’s probably not that different a proposition. Ferrell plays Holmes as an idiot, Reilly even more so with Watson, and most of the jokes come from anachronisms, like a Make American Great Again hat, a Victorian gym with a 21st century ethos, or the blithe use of cocaine or heroin. Ferrell and Reilly go for it, and the supporting cast includes Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Laurie, Rebecca Hall, Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden. Comedy is so rare that Holmes & Watson’s old-school gags deserved a better reception; despite the critical obloquy, there’s plenty to amuse here.

Daphne 2017 ***

Peter Mackie Burns has long been one of the UK’s most interesting directors; his award-winning shorts promised much, but his first feature Come Closer had the most limited release possible.  From a script by Nico Mesinga, Daphne is an abrasive, telling portrait of a young woman, Daphne, as played by Emily Beecham. Working in a London restaurant, it’s clear that Daphne is capable of more, but turbulent relationships with men and drugs don’t help, and she feels stuck in a rut until witnessing a violent event changes her view on life. With strong support from Geraldine James as her mother, Beecham creates a vivid portrait of Daphne that sticks in the mind; she’s not without energy or ideas, but she’s short of the agency required to achieve them, and watching her wake up to her predicament makes for a gripping 90 mins.  This kind of character study used to be a regular feature of UK film and TV, but it’s become a lost art and Mackie Burns deserves credit for keeping the flag flying for observational, reality-based film-making that was a key part of the social resence of the BBC in the 70’s and Channel 4 in the 80’s.

Mary Poppins Returns 2018 ****

Reviving a beloved fifty-year old property was always going to be a tough ask for Disney; Mary Poppins Returns succeeds primarily because Emily Blunt is perfect casting to take over the umbrella from Julie Andrews; there’s a mix of starch and sweetness here that’s ideal to recapture the character, although Blunt’s Poppins is notably different, particularly in a sexualised way. Rob Marshall’s film doubles down on the musical-hall styling of the original, but the fresh emphasis on innuendo; Blunt’s performance of The Cover is Not The Book shifts somewhat towards Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Otherwise, there’s a familiar mix of 2D animation, sentiment, and of course every child loves a trenchant analysis of the banking system. Nefarious disaster capitalist Colin Firth has the Banks family (Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer) over a barrel unless they can recover precious deeds. Mary Poppins Returns scrupulously adheres to the original film, right down to longeuers, general over-length and a lack of pace. But the music is fine, and Blunt revitalises the character for a new generation of nanny-seeking children of all ages.