This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Without a Clue (1988)

"Moriarity knows I'm the only match for his evil genius."
"Are you sure he's not trying to kill me?"
"Of course not! He knows you're an idiot."
"Thank God!"
-Dr. John Watson & Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic character Sherlock Holmes has had many cinematic adaptations to his name practically since the beginning of the cinema. One of the most famous adaptations were the ones made by Universal in the 1940s with Basil Rathbone as Holmes, although, curiously, only the first of these (1939's The Hound of the Baskervilles) was an offical adaptation of a Conan Doyle Holmes story while the rest had more contemporary settings (Rathbone's Holmes battles Nazis, for one thing), similar to the recent series Sherlock which also has the great detective and his aide, Dr. John Watson, in a modern-day setting.
Other memorable Holmes adaptations include Hammer Films' take on Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) in which Peter Cushing played Holmes and was the first Holmes movie in color. Sadly, Hammer's plans for more Holmes adaptations fell through. The 2009 Sherlock Holmes was also memorable with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law making a surprisingly good team as Holmes and Watson. There were even episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation devoted to Holmes.
Hands down, though, the best of the Holmes adaptations was the British television series starring Jeremy Brett as the detective. This series, which ran from 1984 to 1994, was a big hit across the world and is the closest to the spirit of Conan Doyle's series. It was during the run of this series that Without a Clue was released. Like the Brett series, this took place at the latter half of the 19th Century. This film, however, was a comedy with a unique twist: Holmes was merely a figurehead and Watson was the one who really solved the crimes behind the scenes.
As the good doctor (Ben Kingsley) explains to his editor (Peter Cook), he helped an investigator solve a murder some years ago, but gave credit to a fictitious detective because Watson was aspiring for a job at a prestigious university and feared that crime-solving on the side would diminish his chances of obtaining such a position. As it turns out, Watson didn't get the job but did get an audience wanting to know more about Holmes. To that end, he hires an actor named Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine) to play Holmes, who basically takes all the credit for the detective work Watson does and writes down for the Strand Magazine. To the public, including the jealous Scotland Yard inspector Lastrade (Jeffrey Jones), Holmes is the best detective in the world and Watson is just backup.
When the film opens, though, Watson begins to be wary of "Holmes" due to the latter's excessive ego, which is matched by his excessive womanizing, gambling, and drinking. Watson, at one point, kicks him out of his Baker Street flat, but basically comes crawling back to him when Lastrade informs him that the government wants Holmes to solve a mystery threatening the British Empire's economy.
The mystery involves the disappearance of a treasury employee and the trail eventually leads them to Prof. Moriarity (Paul Freeman), who knows that Watson is the real genius while Holmes is a moron.
When they attempt to capture him, Watson is seemingly killed, which eventually prompts "Holmes" to solve the case on his own.
Caine and Kingsley are a wonderful match and many of the film's laughs come from them. Holmes fans may even view Watson's apparent death as a case of art imitating art as Holmes apparently died in The Final Problem only for public pressure to force Conan Doyle to resurrect him in The Empty House (although The Hound of the Baskervilles was published in between those two stories). The film also reflects the love/hate relationship Conan Doyle had with his creation. For years, he wanted to wash his hands of Holmes and be known for other work, just as Watson wants to be rid of Holmes and be known as "John Watson- The Crime Doctor." In both cases, though, public demand just wouldn't allow it. Rumor has it that Conan Doyle was knighted only after he promised the King he would resurrect Holmes.
While some may not be surprised at the outcome of Watson's apparent demise or the involvement of femme fatale Leslie Giles (Lysette Anthony), this is a delightful, ambitious take on a classic literary figure which simply came at the wrong time.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974)

"This is God's blade, forged for your black heart."
-Captain Kronos, vampire hunter

Hammer Studios revolutionized the horror genre in the 1950s and 60s the same way Disney revolutionized animation in the 1930s and 40s. However, by the 1970s, the studio was in financial straits due, in part, to rival studios putting out more revolutionary movies. The studio would be completely disbanded by the end of the decade. Many Hammer films during that time were simply routine followups or knockoffs of their classic Dracula and Frankenstein films. One exception to that was Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, which is a simple but exciting tale about, obviously, a vampire hunter who inhabits the same sort of 'long time ago...' setting as Christopher Lee's Count (although the film never specifies when it takes place). The title character, played by Horst Janson, is a former military man who now roams the countryside hunting the undead. He is called upon by his former comrade-in-arms Dr. Marcus (John Carson) to investigate the death of a young woman, who has been drained both of her blood and her youthful looks. With his faithful assistant Prof. Grost (John Cater), Kronos heads off to a nearby village were other women have met similar fates after they were approached by an unknown, cloaked figure. En route, the pair gain an ally in a beautiful gypsy girl named Carla (Caroline Munro), who becomes romantically involved with Kronos. He eventually tells her that the vampiric deaths of his mother and sister were the catalysts for his penchant for hunting vampires. Eventually, the trio track down the vampire responsible for the current deaths; one Lord Durward (William Hobbs) at his lush castle. In the film's exciting climax, Kronos and Durward duel to the death. Kronos, while not exactly enchanting, is still an easy-to-side-with protagonist, and Janson's performance is a large part of this film's appeal. The moment in which he and Grost attempt to kill Marcus (at his own behest) before the vampire bite he received turns him into a vampire is both humorous and whince-inducing. In addition, the Kronos/Carla romance is quite sweet, basically because it isn't played out in the same predictable and arbitrary way that other romances in films (thrillers or otherwise) are. Hammer had hoped that this would be the first in a new film series for them. Sadly, the company's financial problems led to limited distribution for this film, which, in turn, decreased the chances of seeing Kronos in future installments. But, while To the Devil...A Daughter (1976) may have been the last Hammer film, I'm calling Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter the last GREAT Hammer film.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Nighthawks (1981)

"You'll go to a better life."
-Heymer Reinhardt, aka Wulfgar

As I'm sure most people already know, Sylvester Stallone went from completely unknown to world-famous practically overnight thanks to the film Rocky (1976), the simple but uplifting story of a down-on-his-luck boxer who gets a shot at the big time. Stallone not only played the title role but wrote the script. In fact, every studio in Hollywood offered him generous money for it. Stallone eventually agreed to sell it to MGM on the condition that he could play the title role. This was a bold move as all the studios were hoping for a big name star in the lead, but an unknown like Stallone was more fitting because it added to the feel-good nature of the film, as his struggles reflected those of Rocky Balboa. With his new-found stardom, Stallone starred and even directed films which, to be blunt, sucked. Both F.I.S.T. (1978) and Paradise Alley (1979) left much to be desired and, one could say, represented an omen of things to come (more on that shortly). It was all but a given that the inevitable Rocky II (1979) would meet with inevitable (financial) success. Otherwise, Stallone wouldn't have another role that matched the success of Rocky until 1982 with the drama First Blood. With that movie, his character, Vietnam veteran John Rambo, entered the consciousness of filmgoers to the same extent that Rocky Balboa had. Just before First Blood, however, came Nighthawks, an exciting police drama in which Stallone plays unorthodox NYC detective Deke DaSilva who, with his partner Matt Fox (Billy Dee Williams), is enlisted by Interpol to track down international terrorist Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer), who has made his way to the Big Apple after his recent act (his first scene in the film has him bombing a department store in London) leads to his description being fed to authorities across Europe. With the assistance of his associate Shakka Holland (Persis Khambatta), Wulfgar undergoes plastic surgery in Paris (& promptly kills the surgeon afterward to avoid possible disclosure) before heading across the Atlantic. The film really gets going the moment DaSilva first lays eyes on Wulfgar in a nightclub, where the latter had previously befriended a single woman in order to obtain a hiding place for his weaponry. He later kills the unfortuately lady in question when she stumbles onto his hardware. As with other films, this one is made more exciting by its musical score. From the title sequence to the film's conclusion involving DaSilva's ex-wife (Lindsay Wagner), Keith Emerson's score sets the stage for the intensity to come. This would be as well-known a gem as Rocky and First Blood had real life not intervened on the eve of its release. On March 30, 1981 (the film was released in April), John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate then-President Ronald Reagan. Although the President recovered and Hinckley was sentenced to life imprisonment, Universal Studios (which distributed Nighthawks) became nervous and elected not to give the film much promotion. Hence, this film never had the chance to be as embraced, let alone have followups, as Rocky and Rambo did (although given how each of their subsequent followups became more and more ridiculous, maybe that was for the best). Stallone continued to be financially successful, but his ventures outside the boxing ring or the war zone brought simply pans from the critics to the point were he was later declared the worst actor of the century in some circles. I must confess, I viewed him in this manner for a time as well, but if you remove the dreadful comedies from his filmography-such as Rhinestone (1984) and Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot (1992)-and even some of his other action pictures-like Cobra (1986) and Over the Top (1987)-and focus on memorable flicks such as Nighthawks, Cliffhanger (1993), and Cop Land (1997), you begin to realize that Stallone has talent. It's simply talent that, more often than not, finds itself in the wrong picture.