Motherless Brooklyn 2019 ****

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It’s a good twenty years since Jonathan Lethem’s novel was published; based on the public and critical reaction, writer/director Edward Norton needn’t have bothered adapting the text from prose to screen. And yet there’s plenty to enjoy in Motherless Brooklyn, which, like The Goldfinch, is far from the dud that the box office might suggest; certainly, films about urban planning are rarely big news, but although it’s 144 minutes long, Norton’s film is idiosyncratic and often engaging.

Bruce Willis gets near-top billing, but is pretty much out of the film before the credits go up. Willis plays Frank Minna, a local gangster with a penchant for rescuing children; it’s through this method that he’s a mentor to Lionel Essrog, a bright young man with Tourette’s syndrome. Essrog also has a perfect memory, and listens in on one of Minna’s meetings shortly before his father-figure is shot. Piecing together various abstract clues, Hamlet-style, Essrog starts to investigate Trump-ian property baron Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and also the businessman’s brother Paul (Willem Dafoe). Randolph has designs of the New York property market, but his methods are underhand, and Essrog is quickly out of his depth…

A film like this stands and falls on its villain, and Baldwin relishes the opportunity to play Randolph with saturnine charm. Whether he’s directly responsible for the violent killings that beset Essrog isn’t exactly clear, but it is obvious that Randolph has an evolved philosophy that penalises the poor. Motherless Brooklyn has a Chinatown-lite view of city corruption, and anyone interested in New York will enjoy the various allusions gathered here, as well as some eye-opening chat about Central Park

Norton is also an actor’s director, getting good work from his cast, and he also provides a happy centre as Essrog. Playing a character with a disability isn’t a great look in 2019, and yet there’s obvious reasons why it wouldn’t be easy to cast the role. Norton does well not to play Essrog’s verbal infelicities for laughs, and pulls off something rare and unexpected by having a disabled protagonist whose disability is not central to the narrative.

Motherless Brooklyn takes a few wrong turns; the background to Essrog’s detective agency is inadequately sketched in, and Minna leaves far too early to get a sense of who he was. But there’s a clear gap between the quality of Norton’s film and the public’s appreciation of what he’s done, and Motherless Brooklyn is worth recommending to the discerning viewer.

Knives Out 2019 ****

knives-out-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is an old-fashioned whodunit that runs very much against the popular tide; such tried and tested entertainments are rarely in vogue. Exhuming Murder on the Orient Express didn’t breathe much life into the Agatha Christie stakes, and drawing rooms, insurance policies and old-school detection are hardly the ingredients for box-office success. It’s surprising, then, that despite trailers that indicate a camp-as-Clue pastiche, Knives Out is an engrossing puzzle that constitutes that rarest of commodities, a good story well told.

With no real need for spoilers, Knives Out begins with a death, and immediately tips the audience off to the guilty party. It reverses the expectations of a whodunit, and leaves us guessing where the story will go next. Of course, there’s plenty of suspects who look guilty as sin when it comes to having motives against author Harlan Thronbey (Christopher Plummer); practically his entire family have their knives out for him, providing juicy roles for stars such as Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon and Don Johnson. Meanwhile Thronbey’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) has her own secrets to hide, and there’s knowing cameos from Frank Oz and M Emmett Walsh to keep cineastes happy. And leading the way is Benoit Blanc, a detective played by Daniel Craig with a deft comic touch. It’s not been easy finding vehicles for an actor of Craig’s charisma, but Blanc makes an ideal focal point here, playing off his Bond image with an eccentric, slightly incompetent investigator.

Knives Out brings something fresh to the genre; the artwork of antique knives in the living room of Thronbey’s house matches up nicely with the broken spirals of shattered glass on Marta’s phone. There are wheels within wheels in the convoluted narrative, and red herrings often merge with the plot-points; there a charming conceit whereby clues are deliberately obscured under the noses of the detectives, and a cheerful dog unknowingly retrieves items of potential value.

The clichés that Knives Out turns inside out have been dormant so long that younger audiences might not realise they exist; it’s hard to imagine the Joker generation being familiar with such musty enterprises as 1961’s What A Carve Up! But that’s exactly where Knives Out goes, and hopefully the fresh take on the country-house murder will spark joy in amateur detectives worldwide.

Flashback 1990 ****

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“Wait till you see the 90’s, they’re going to make the 70’s look like the 50’s!’ says hippie Huey Walker (Dennis Hopper) in Flashback, a comedy-thriller that’s refreshing in the way it puts politics centre-stage. Walker is an Abbie Hoffman-style prankster who has been missing since he decoupled Spiro Agnew’s train as an anti-war protest; when he resurfaces in 1990, he anticipates that social norms about to get a lot stricter, and in hindsight, he was right.

Walker has a strong piece of evidence in his nemesis, FBI agent John Buckner, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Buckner wears a suit, carries a gun, and couldn’t be further from the ideals Walker espouses; ‘I wanted to be the opposite of what my parents wanted’ Bucker explains, and he’s delivered on that promise. Buckner is deputised to take Walker on a long cross-country journey by train in order to stand trial, but his captive escapes, and the two men end up going on the run together as dark forces close in on Huey.

Flashback was directed by Franco Amurri, who directed the original version of Big, and there’s a body swap element here too, even if it’s played without the magic. Walker convinces Buckner than he’s spiked his drink with acid, gets him drunk, then steals his gun and clothes; clean shaven, he becomes a fun-house mirror-image of himself, with the exact opposite in political ideals. Walker is also able to put Buckner back in contact with his own idealistic youth, via an ex girlfriend Maggie (Carol Kane) who still carries a torch for Walker and the flower-power movement. While both men seem entrenched in their own political views, they manage to reverse their instant judgements of each other and form some kind of alliance.

The plotting gets a little murky in the final act of Flashback, with the chase elements overwhelming the sharper observations of the script, although the climax is pretty sharp. Hopper, discussing the impact of Easy Rider, makes a number of post-modern jokes about his own reputation, with Born to Be Wild part of the eclectic soundtrack choices. The perennially underrated Sutherland does a great job of suggesting the spectrum of opinions possible within one man; the scene where Buckner cries to see his childhood self in a home movie is brilliantly played.

It would be untrue to suggest Flachback has a bad reputation; it’s got no reputation at all, and surfaces on Amazon Prime like a Flashback to when a populist American film might seek to create political unity. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a good –humoured and knowing film that might just find a few new converts with a fresh new print and two great stars to pull them in.

The Diamond Mercenaries aka Killer Force 1975 ***

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‘They’re mercenaries, not idiots’ is a telling line from The Diamond Mercenaries, but the matter is very much up for discussion. Sure, if your idea of a good Saturday night romp is watching the late Peter Fonda suffering an intrusive rectal examination, then Val Guest’s 1975 thriller is likely to be just what you’re looking for. But Fonda’s indignities are only a small part of what’s on offer here, from Telly Savalas’s turtle-neck wardrobe to Christopher Lee in khaki; if you miss the simple virtues of a 1970’s potboiler, the Force assembled here is all Killer and no filler.

Savalas is Harry Webb, the head of security at the “Syndicated Diamond Corporation’ which sounds like a trip-hop band and that vibe seems to have influenced Savalas to play Webb like a night-club owner complete with a garish wardrobe. The random picks for the opposition include OJ Simpson, Christopher Lee and Hugh O’Brian, while Bond girl Maud Adams slinks about on the side-lines as a glamorous tv reporter. Fonda was coming to the end of his leading-man status, his bankability drained by the vogue for anti-heroes having ebbed by the mid70’s, and he gives a strange performance behind a Seth Rogen beard and mega-shades.

Having excoriated Amazon Prime for some of their awful prints, I should note that The Diamond Mercenaries looks crisp and the desert scenes are rather beautiful. As are, in a different way, the 1976 interiors, which have a luridness worth catching. And it’s worth appreciating that the South African setting allows for a certain largess in terms of action, which many bullets and explosions in a frantic half hour.

For Guest, late in his career and sandwiched between Confessions of a Window Cleaner and Cannon and Ball vehicle The Boys in Blue, this is a surprisingly zestful actioneer in a sub-Alistair Maclean style. The bright yellow jeeps may well be the most memorable thing here, but streaming is probably the best shot that this forgotten movie has of any kind of redemption.

 

A Good Woman is Hard to Find *** 2019

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There’s a trope in thrillers that should really have been retired, in which an inexperienced, physically weak person somehow triumphs against one, two or possibly three professional criminals. Even the likes of Quentin Tarantino, usually keen to turn a cliché inside out, isn’t averse to this unlikely scenario in films like True Romance. Maybe there’s a place for this kind of nonsense in a lightweight Jackie Chan action comedy, but it’s increasingly problematic when a film is deadly serious in intent, and it’s a frustrating flaw in Abnor Pastoll’s otherwise accomplished A Good Woman is Hard to Find.

Sarah Bolger is the big draw here, giving a big, empathetic performance as Sarah, a mother of two whose life in a Belfast housing estate has already been disrupted before the story begins; her husband has been killed, their son is rendered mute, and Sarah has a full time job just holding her family together. Callous criminal Tito (Andrew Simpson) bursts into her life when he attempts to hole up in her family home, complete with a package of drugs. But when one of Sarah’s kids opens the package, events spiral out of control in a violent way, leaving her with an increasingly difficult path to protect her family.

Ronan Blaney’s script manages to fashion a Loachian realism in the early stages, capturing a bleak, hard-scrabble existence that’s very much in line with Bolger’s grounded turn. But the plot mechanics are stretched to breaking point, with loquacious hoodlums circling and far, far too many deaths to avoid credulity going out the window. Having the bad guys discuss the connection between Tito’s name and the Yugoslavian dictator is the kind of indulgent, knowing dialogue that’s thankfully fallen out of fashion; the less we know about Sarah’s antagonists, the more frightening they are. Showing pond-life thugs engaging in writerly Alan Bennett wordplay throws the film’s gyroscope fatally out of whack.

But there’s a reason for reviewing, and for seeing a film like A Good Woman Is Hard to Find, and that’s Bolger. Increasingly the go-to girl for a strong performance, she burns up the screen as a protective, vulnerable mother, and she makes the film sing even when the clichés start to show. This is a tough, intermittently gripping thriller, but Bolger gives it a heart that makes A Good Woman is Hard to Find a cut above the norm.

Flashpoint 1984 ***

flash1When is a movie not a movie? When it’s made for home entertainment? These are the arguments that no-one was asking when HBO opened up their theatrical release account way back in 1984 with Flashpoint, an adaptation of a novel by George LaFountaine. Truth by told, Flashpoint is a cut above most tv movies and fully deserved to be seen theatrically; it’s also gained a certain post-JFK notoriety by chiming in with the themes of Oliver Stone’s celebrated conspiracy pic.

Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams play Bobby Logan and Ernie Wyatt, two Texas border patrolmen who start to question their roles; there’s a prescient discussion where a dropped-in suit (Kurtwood Smith) suggests that if there wasn’t a migrant problem, it would be necessary to create a crisis in order to justify the US government spending on border fortification. That seems like quite an accurate prediction of 2019’s fake news and national emergency, but such allusions are not Flashpoint’s main line of enquiry. The patrolmen find a jeep buried in the sand with skeletons, a high-powered gun, and a stack of money which they trace back to early 1960’s Dallas; could they have stumbled on part of a cover-up directly related to the assassination of president John F Kennedy?

Director William Tannen’s thriller doesn’t deviate too much from conventional thriller mechanics, but there’s lots for genre fans to enjoy here, starting with another amazing Tangerine Dream score. Smith, Rip Torn and Miguel Ferrer all add gritty support turns, and the film certainly explores border politics in a thorough way.

The zeitgeist moved towards slicker, flashier, Miami Vice-type investigations, leaving Flashpoint high and dry and the box office, but it deserves to gain a little more recognition for packaging politics and thrills together effectively. If nothing else, Williams and Kristofferson are pretty much convincing as the cops, frequently stripped to the waist, tanned, sporting sunglasses, and driving nifty looking jeeps that bounce around the desert with not a drop of CGI in sight.

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