Streampix Watch: Through the Past, Lightly: Top 10 Period Pieces

by | February 11, 2014 at 6:05 PM | Downton Abbey, XFINITY Streampix

Cate Blanchett is Queen in "Elizabeth" (Universal Home Entertainment)

The beauty of the movies is it can transport you from the Middle Ages (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”), 16th century Elizabethan England (“Elizabeth,” “Mary, Queen of Scots”) and 18th century Vienna (“Amadeus”) to the Civil War (“Gods and Generals”) or the post-WWI roaring twenties (“The Great Waldo Pepper”), all without leaving your living room couch. Streampix offers a selection of the best period pieces, as motion picture magic manages to recreate long-ago worlds—the costumes, details and setting—with the help of the latest technology has to offer.

Elizabeth: This year’s Oscar Best Actress front-runner Cate Blanchett earned a nomination in the same category for her portrayal of the title royal in director Shekhar Kapur’s 1998 biopic which also received a Best Picture nomination. The film is loosely based on the early years of  Elizabeth’s reign, when her political duties ran headlong into her steamy affair with Joseph Fiennes’ Earl of Leicester. The movie took home a single Oscar among its seven nominations, for Best Make-Up. The cast also included Geoffrey Rush, Sir John Gielgud and Richard Attenborough. Both Blanchett and Rush reprised their roles in the 2007 sequel “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” which covered the latter part of her rule.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”: Kevin Costner’s Robin of Locksley returns from the Crusades to find Alan Rickman’s dastardly evil Sheriff of Nottingham making life miserable for the peasants of Sherwood Forest, and proceeds to recruit a noble band of allies to help him defeat the cruel lawman, including Morgan Freeman, a young Christian Slater and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Maid Marian in Kevin Reynolds’ 1991 reboot of the fabled franchise. Keep an eye out for Sean Connery’s uncredited cameo as King Richard. The film was a major box office hit, making nearly $400 million internationally (the third highest grossing film of the year), but is probably best known today for Bryan Adams’ Oscar-nominated Best Song, “(Everything I do) I Do It For You.”

Vanity Fair”: Reese Witherspoon plays William Makepeace Thackery’s feisty 19th century heroine Becky Sharp, an orphan who guiles her way to the top of London society with a combination of pluck, guile and her sexuality in this 2004 adaptation directed by Mira Nair. The cast also includes Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, James Purefoy, Gabriel Byrne, Eileen Atkins, Bob Hoskins and Jim Broadbent. A sequence featuring Robert Pattinson ended up on the cutting-room floor. Nair brought in “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes to rewrite the film, making Sharp more sympathetic than in the novel.

Gods and Generals”: Executive producer Ted Turner sunk nearly $60 million of his own funds into this 2003 drama about the early days of the Civil War, which tells the story of Confederate generals “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang) and Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) during the campaigns of Manassas to the Battle of Fredericksburg. Jeff Daniels co-stars as Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, while Turner himself has a cameo as Colonel Waller T. Patton. U.S. Senators George Allen and Robert Byrd appear as Confederate soldiers, with Phil Gramm as a member of the Virginia Legislature. More than 7,500 re-enactors were recruited for the meticulously recreated battle scenes. The movie is positioned as the prequel to the 1993 Streampix selection “Gettysburg.” Little-known fact: Duvall was related to General Lee.

Amadeus”: Milos Forman’s 1984 adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s Broadway show about Mozart and his chief rival for court composer took home eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Di\rector and Best Actor (F. Murray Abraham, who bested his onscreen nemesis and fellow nominee Thomas Hulce). It also won—no surprise—for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Makeup. An R-rated version with nearly 20 minutes of restored footage emerged in the 2002 Director’s Cut, which is the one on Streampix.

Mary, Queen of Scots”: A neat companion piece to “Elizabeth,” this 1972 costume drama finds Vanessa Redgrave’s Queen Elizabeth I and Glenda Jackson’s Marty Stuart matching wits in director Charles Jarrott’s account of the historic conflicts between the pair in 16th century Britain.  The largely English cast also includes a couple of future and former secret agents in Timothy Dalton and American expat Patrick McGoohan, as well as Nigel Davenport, Trevor Howard, Daniel Massey and Ian Holm.

The Man Who Wasn’t There”: The Coen brothers’ 2001 black and white neo-film noir takes place in 1949 California, where Billy Bob Thornton’s barber tries to blackmail James Gandolfini’s rich guy, who is having an affair with his wife (Joel Coen’s real-life spouse Frances McDormand), recalling the plots of the  pair’s previous “Blood Simple” and “Fargo.” Look for a young Scarlett Johansson, “Six Feet Under” star Richard Jenkins and Tony Shalhoub in the cast.

Fellini’s Casanova”: The master Italian auteur’s ribald 1976 movie is a portrait of the 18th century libertine and notorious lover (played in heavy make-up by Donald Sutherland). The movie is a typically surreal romp through his sexual adventures across Europe, shot entirely at the famed Cinecitta studios in Rome. The movie earned an Oscar for Danilo Donati’s costumes and a nomination for Fellini and Bernardino Zapponi’s original screenplay, with a classic soundtrack by the director’s longtime musical collaborator Nino Rota. Original producer Dino De Laurentiis wanted Robert Redford for the title role, but Fellini refused to cast him, instead signing a new deal for the film with Alberto Grimaldi.

The Great Waldo Pepper”: Redford might have been passed over by Fellini, but he was larger-than-life as a barnstorming bipilot of the 1920s who links up with a small air-circus in co-writer (with William Goldman)/director George Roy Hill’s 1975 period adventure, which also stars Bo Svenson, Susan Sarandon, Edward Hermann and Margot Kidder. Redford is the title character, a daredevil pilot who recreates famous World War I dogfights after feeling he lost out on the glory of aerial combat when he was made a flight instructor. The movie was a labor of love for Hill, who was a pilot himself and previously directed Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting.”

The Public Eye”: Writer/director Howard Franklin’s 1992 neo-noir stars Joe Pesci as a ‘40s tabloid crime-scene photojournalist named Leon “The Great Bernzini” Bernstein (loosely based on the real-life N.Y. Daily News cameraman Arthur “Weegee” Fellig) who becomes embroiled in the shady dealings of a nightclub owner’s widow (Barbara Hershey). This was Pesci’s first role after his Oscar-winning performance in “Goodfellas.” Stanley Tucci and Jerry Adler also co-star, but look for “The Sopranos”’ Uncle Junior, Dominic Chianese, as Spoleto, and Mel Brooks
World War Z” author-son Max in a cameo as a teenager.