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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Stage Beauty 2004 ****

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It’s a dubious honour for a film to be voted, as it was by Phoenix film critics, the most overlooked film of the year. But by the time Richard Eyre’s film got to Phoenix, it was already struggling in the wake of Shakespeare in Love, which pretty much ticked everyone’s literary/period box for a while. That’s a pity because Stage Beauty is an unusually literate drama which has a cool feminist take. Based on the play Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher, the subject is the ban on women performing on-stage during their reign of King Charles II (Rupert Everett). Maria (Claire Danes) works backstage, but knows she could take the spotlight, which is otherwise occupied by Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), whose female impersonation makes him an ideal Desdemona for Othello. When the King’s attitudes are changed, albeit not for any noble reason, Maria’s career flourishes while Ned’s languishes in the doldrums; the pattern of A Star is Born offers a few amusing parallels. Support is top drawer, with Edward Fox dispensing a couple of choice lines, Tom Wilkinson as Othello (‘I’m not actually black’ he confesses to little attention), Tom Hollander, Ben Chaplin, Alice Eve and Hugh Bonneville making up the backbone of a strong starting eleven. Stage Beauty has quite a pedigree, a BBC production with Robert De Niro amongst the producer, and maybe it proved too highbrow for the masses, yet it’s romantic, acerbic and has something interesting to say about how men perceive women and vice versa. Eyre is seen as something of a national treasure in the UK, and yet his two best films (This and The Ploughman’s Lunch) are arguably his least celebrated. And while Homeland has made Danes a household name, Crudup is awards-worthy in his performance, utterly convincing as a female impersonator. He’s a super actor, always just off the front rank, who really shouldn’t be overlooked by critics or audiences for this kind of peerless work.

https://www.amazon.com/Stage-Beauty-Billy-Crudup/dp/B000RHLY7O/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=stage+beauty&qid=1567677147&s=gateway&sr=8-1

Salome’s Last Dance 1988 ***

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As well as a peerless acting career, Glenda Jackson has had a second act as a politician, serving as a Labour MP in the UK parliament before retiring to act again in 2015. As she takes to the stage in a 1882 brothel in Ken Russell’s film, surrounded by topless models and portly men in leather thongs, it’s easy to see how her political and theatrical goals might look similar; anyone wondering what other strings British MP’s have to their bows should pay close attention. Decadence, as it often is with Russell, is the subject; Oscar Wilde (Nickolas Grace) retreats to a bordello to watch various creatures of low morals perform his banned play Salome, which is reproduced here in full, translated by Russell’s wife Vivian. Stratford Johns, beloved tv detective turned unlikely muse for late-period Russell, makes an arrogant Herod, and Imogen Millias-Scott plays Salome in a off-kilter way; her striptease is given a non-binary twist by Russell using a man as her body double to sting any potential voyeurs. Salome’s Last Dance is a hard film to sit through, consisting largely of monologues which have gained a certain mustiness over time. But the costume and staging are as imaginative as might be expected; Russell was a creative force, and it would be nice if the fan-boys who scramble over his most salacious work (The Devils, Tommy) showed some interest in this difficult, but surprisingly melancholy and mature take on the methodical literary madness of Oscar Wilde.

 

The Sand Pebbles 1966 ****

In 1966, an epic didn’t mean spacemen, aliens and super-heroes; it meant tough men, machines, history and a three hour running time. Three hours isn’t enough for Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles, a dramatic story of US sailors on board the titular boat, who find themselves caught between different factions in 1920’s China. Despite denials from the talent involved, Vietnam is a clear subtext, and there’s a clear through-line of guilt about the cost of patrolling and bring peace to the unwelcoming locals. Steve McQueen gives it his considerable all as a mechanic who steps up when the crew gets threatened, with Candice Bergen as the love-interest missionary, and Sir Richard Attenborough as the best pal who doesn’t make it to the final, impressive climax. Incidentally, co-star Emmanuelle Arsan went on to become the Emmanuelle, whose book became a notable soft-porn sensation and spawned countless imitations. She presumably had a good time making this; under Wise’s skilled direction, and with remarkable production values, it’s an absolute pleasure to watch.

The Haunting aka The Terror 1963

Seemingly improvised on the sets of another film over a fleeting period, The Haunting, better known as The Terror but not terribly well known as either, is an oddity even by Roger Corman’s standards. With Francis Ford Coppola amongst the producers and Monte Hellman on wardrobe, there’s plenty of behind the scenes talent, while in front of the camera there’s a substantial role for Corman cameo specialist Dick Miller, and a generation-spanning central twosome of Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson. While no-one would doubt that Nicholson has proved many times since that he’s a great actor, he’s not quite in his comfort zone as an army officer in Napoleonic war era France. Karloff is on much more familiar ground as a widowed Baron who is haunted by the ghost of his wife. There’s some plot-twists here, seemingly improvised, that really don’t make any sense, but there’s a high curiosity value of watching such a motely crew of actors; it might come up short of horror, but The Haunting is a strange document of old and Hollywood collectively bending over to make a buck.

Royal Flash 1974 ***

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Malcolm McDowell takes the lead in this period romp from Richard Lester, based on the Flashman books by the late George MacDonald Fraser. A period James Bond with cowardly tendencies, Flashman is enlisted by Bismarck (Oliver Reed) into impersonating a Prussian dignitary, but Flashman soon finds himself over his head in European intrigue. As well as a sexy turn from Florida Ballkan, Royal Flash offers an array of great supporting work from Alastair Sim, Alan Bates, Tom Bell, Joss Ackland, Britt Ekland and a tiny role for the late Bob Hoskins as a police officer. The mix of slapstick violence, fake patriotism and espionage doesn’t quite gel, but Royal Flash is worth seeing for its cheerful irreverence and lavish period detail.

Wilde 1997 ***

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A nice piece of casting, by having the 21st century’s most lauded online wit, Stephen Fry, play arguably the most acerbic man in history, Brian Gibson’s BBC film pulls off something of a coup. Based on Richard Ellman’s book, Wilde focuses less of Wilde’s writing career than on the series of personal relationships that cause him considerable torment; as a husband and father, Oscar Wilde finds himself at the sharp end of societal judgement when he embarks on an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (Jude Law). Orlando Bloom pops up as a rent boy, Tom Wilkinson turns up as the Marquess of Queensberry who prosecutes Wilde, and Martin Sheen and Ioan Gruffud add some British spit and polish. And at the centre, Fry gives a strong performance as Wilde, dealing with inner anguish and spitting out bon mots with considerable style.