The Riot Act 2019 ****

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Brett Cullen’s appearance as Thomas Wayne in Todd Phillips’ much slavered-over Joker is an obvious selling-point for writer/director Devon Parks’s first feature; the talent involved here can hardly be accused on cashing in on a vogue for 1901-set period thrillers. But admirers of The Prestige or The Illusionist may well find something to enjoy in this complex revenge story with supernatural overtones that also makes some cheeky thematic lifts from Hamlet. We start, as a thriller should, with murder most foul; respected doctor William Pearrow (Cullen) rules the roost in an Arkansas town at the turn of the last century, and his disapproval of his daughter’s choice of beau (a lowly opera singer) leads to violence. Two years later, Allye (Lauren Sweetser) has healed her wounds and returns to revenge herself and her lover; the locals assumed that she was dead, and that Pearrow’s actions were motivated by justice. Complicating things is the appearance of a troupe of actors including stage-hand August (Connor Price), who also has a grudge against Pearrow, but who must work with Allye to achieve his goal. Cullen gives a malevolent performance, matched nicely by Sweetser and Price, who manage to stress a vulnerability that makes their task seem difficult. Parks starts and finishes strongly, and the mid-section is absorbing enough to make the mysteries worth unravelling; the vaudevillian setting is fresh and unusual, with real small-town sets ingeniously used, and the emphasis on theatrical trickery adds a certain frisson. The Riot Act has a low budget, but clever ideas that make it worth the effort; inhabiting a darkly similar world to Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight, it’s well worth a look for those seeking a more literary kind of thriller.

 

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Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood 2019 *****

Few films have had as little similarity to expectations as Inglorious Bastards; what was touted as a ‘men on a mission’ movie along the lines of The Dirty Dozen turned out to have a remarkably meandering narrative including one lengthy scene in which characters, never seen before or again, play charades in the cellar of a bar for quite a chunk of time. Quentin Tarantino’s latest film takes a similarly picaresque approach; with two big stars, we assume a buddy comedy/bromance with the Manson family killings lurking somewhere in the background or foreground. That’s not at all what gets delivered, and that’s a good thing; alarm bells rang when Tarantino announced the setting (year, place) or this film, but Charles Manson is only fleetingly depicted and the actual killings are thankfully not within the film’s scope. That’s not to say that Once Upon doesn’t examine in granular detail exactly what Tarantino imagines was going-down between hippies, cults and conservatives in 1969, the film just doesn’t examine them in the way we expect. Instead, we have a rollercoaster ride, one that takes so long to get started that most thrill-seekers will be ready to demand their money back, then accelerates to a surprising climax so vigorous and satisfying the customers are left begging for another go round. As Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio look older and rather less cool than in previous ventures, but the coolness they embody is earned rather than cosmetic. They knock around a sun-kissed Hollywood, but their lives are less than glamorous; Dalton struggles to remember his lines on set while Booth dutifully repairs his tv antennae. The action slows to a crawl to cover non-events such as Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) going to the cinema, Dalton reading a book while chatting to a child actor, or Booth feeding his dog. But each of these scenes, long, protracted and seemingly meaningless, turn out to imbue the tale with significant value by the final scene, which like Pulp Fiction, carves out a happy ending in the face of an known tragedy. Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood has got the impacted layers of a great film; there’s a thousand minor details to be patiently unpacked, and a unique picture once the jigsaw is finally assembled. Sociologically-aware moments like Booth’s gradual realisation of the manner in which a familiar ranch as been co-opted by hippies have a haunting, original angle on history that’s completely out of tune with the shallow, derivative approach that most film-makers take to their material. If True Romance was a Greatest Hits package, Once Upon a Time…sees a lauded, popular artist finally finding their own unique voice.

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times 1972 ****

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‘Even the police know I’m an incredible nymphomaniac!’ is a good sample line from Emilio Miraglia’s wonderfully overcooked giallo, which keeps one guessing by being so nutty that placing a bet on who-dunnit is all but impossible. Barbara Bouchet is Kitty, one of two sisters (Marina Malfatti is the other, Franziska) who have been brought up to fear a family curse that may lead to murder; a flashback reveals that Kitty already has reasons to feel guilt. The death of their grandfather promises a liquidation of finances and potential windfalls for all of the Wildenbrück family, but his will proves inconclusive. The action shifts to a successful fashion house which seems to be called Springe; Kitty is having an affair with the company’s boss Martin (Ugo Pagliali) whose wife is mentally ill. With various murders taking place, could the supernatural Red Queen be taking her revenge on the family, or is the solution something more practical? The real solution is so complicated that even several readings of the Wikipedia page fail to clarify exactly what happened, but it’s fun getting there; the costumes and décor are super-stylish, as are the Bavarian locations. This is a lively giallo, full of twists and turns, never boring and often intriguing; the great Sybill Danning also appears as a windfall bonus.

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have The Key 1972 ****

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Also known as Gently Before She Dies, or Eye of the Black Cat aka Excite Me!, Sergio Martino’s giallo is an original and untypical affair that lifts elements from Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Black Cat, but also has a unique angle of its own. A Cat Called Satan would be an accurate title, since a moggy with that name as a pivotal role here; genre favourites Edwige Fenech and Luigi Pistilli star here; he’s Oliviero, an author who hasn’t written a word for years and makes money by selling off the antique furniture in his country pile with his wife Irina (Anita Strinberg) who he likes to humiliate at their regular orgies. After one of his students his murdered, and then his maid, Oliviero becomes an obvious suspect, but is he gas-lighting his wife or vice versa? His niece Floriana (Fenech) picks an odd time for a social visit, and it proves the catalyst for all manner of sexual and violent behaviour, with Satan included in the domino effect of killings, mutilations and seductions. Cream seems to be a theme, and choice cream-related dialogue includes ‘Hey, hot potato, got any cream in your tricycle? ‘ and ‘Satan’s favourite meal is snake-eyes and cream!’; this is a wonderfully lurid, pervy and overheated melodrama that’s constantly surprising. The magic of streaming is that films like this used to be incredibly hard to find and see, often in poor condition. That a potentially huge audience can see this, at the cost of a couple of free subscriptions, promises that such outré fare might just make a mainstream impact again, for the first time since it was made. Viewed on the Arrow Video Channel.

True Story 2015 ***

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Perhaps it’s the banal title, but Rupert Goold’ s adaptation of Mike Finkel’s account of the murder trial of Christian Longo didn’t make many waves when initially released. Popping up on streaming years, later, it’s not immediately apparent what attracted such top talent; Brad Pitt produced, Jonah Hill and James Franco star, and Felicity Jones makes the best of a few scenes in support. But there are hidden strengths and weaknesses that a home-viewing audience might find worth their while; Finkel (Hill) is a New York Times reporter sacked for fabricating details of a story. When Christian Longo is accused or murdering his wife and children, Finkel is taken aback to discover than Longo used Finkel’s name and identity while on the run. Longo says it’s because he admires Finkel’s writing, but is the reporter being manipulated by a criminal, or is Longo hiding something else? The pay-off is something of an anti-climax, but until then, True Story plays engagingly with notions of identity and the weight of uncovering and expressing truth. Both Hill and Franco have what it takes, with Hill channelling some of his trademark exasperation and Franco artfully suggesting a darkness within. Jones has the best, most confrontational scene here, and one which gives True Story a late jump-start. Despite a few improbabilities in the way that Goold heightens the narrative, this is a slow-burn courtroom thriller that’s worth catching.

Pasolini 2014 ****

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The death of the brilliant Italian film director Pier Paulo Pasolini is something of a JFK moment in Italian culture; conspiracy theories about as to the circumstances that led to his body being found, murdered, apparently run over by his own car. Abel Ferrara is not a director knows for his sensitivity; films like Bad Lieutenant make a virtue of their brutality, but he shows considerable skill in marking out this sympathetic portrait of a creative mind at the end of its tether. As played with customary precision by Willem Dafoe, Pasolini is shown somewhat spent after the catharsis of making Salo in 1975, and one of the novelties of Ferrara’s film is that it evokes colourful scenes from a film Pasolini planned, but never got to make. The presence of some Pasolini regulars including Ninetto Davoli adds to the authenticity, and Pulp Fiction’s Maria de Mederios captures the elan of muse Laura Betti; perhaps this film aims for a niche audience, but that’s no bad thing. Rather than a biopic, Pasolini offers a concise portrait of the artist as a middle aged man, short of love, but still burning with questions that would not be answered in his too-short lifetime. It’s certainly a subject that brings the best out of both director and star.

Ma 2019 ***

maThe latest Blumhouse shocker has a striking casting coup up its sleeve, but not a great deal else to recommend it. The perennially sweet Octavia Spencer has presumably bored herself silly playing kindly, matronly ladies in films like Hidden Figures, or even playing God in The Shack; as executive producer, she’s fashioned a horror role for herself that runs very much contrary to the image she’s cultivated until now. A group of teenagers have nowhere to go in a small town, until local vets assistant they call Ma offers them her basement as a place to hang out. Ma’s gift, complete with booze and snacks, comes at a price; she’s got an ulterior motive, and means nothing but harm. A  remarkable supporting cast has been assembled, including Allison Janney, Luke Evans and Juliette Lewis, but they all take a back seat to Spencer’s Ma. Even when the action gets rather too sadistic for comfort, and there’s some nasty stuff here, Spencer relishes the task of taking her kindly features and seems to enjoy suggesting considerable malice lurking behind that familiar smile.