Liz & Dick (2012) (TVM)

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He treated me like a queen and I loved his voice. God how I loved his voice.  Anyone who knows anything about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton knows one thing above all else – they were never called Liz and Dick. Nobody would have dared. That aside, this is a gloriously kitschy exercise in flashback framed by an interview with them (that never happened in reality and culled from the many letters and notes Burton wrote to Taylor) in which they discuss their fatal attraction on the set of Cleopatra in 1962 , their subsequent adulterous relationship despite having children in their respective marriages, living together and making The VIPs and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf  (Taylor insisted), tricky divorces, their wedding, their peripatetic lifestyle and decision to live on a boat because of the living expenses of two families travelling from set to set and regular house moves in the middle of a never-ending international paparazzi hunt.  It’s all here, with the immensely welcome if odd presence of the great Theresa Russell as Taylor’s mother Sara. Surely some mistake. Punctuated by fabulous jewellery, newspaper headlines, make-ups and bust-ups, heavy drinking, Taylor’s weight gain, Burton’s jealousy of her Academy Awards, the need to make films to solve financial problems and finally Burton’s alleged affair with Nathalie Delon which drove Taylor to a supposed assignation with Aristotle Onassis – at the centre of the chaos and tantrums is a couple whose sexual attraction to one another is overwhelming and quite incomprehensible to other people (a truism for most couples – the only thing these icons ever shared with mere mortals). What we have outside of the relationship is the nature of celebrity as it simply didn’t exist prior to this scandalous duo whose newsworthy antics even attracted the ire of the Vatican (‘erotic vagrancy’). Hello Lumpy! Lohan was roundly criticised for her portrayal and it’s true she doesn’t actually sound, look or move like Taylor but boy does she revel in the lines, like, Elizabeth wants to play. Strangely, she convinces more as the older Taylor with the frightwig and makeup. Bowler is adequate as Burton (even without the disproportionately large head) and underplays him quite well, but what is essential is what surrounds them – glamour, beauty, incredible locations. They literally had a dream of a life. What is clear in this evocation of the Battling Burtons is their need for constant reassurance and the one-upmanship resulting from their shared drive to always do better to keep on an even keel. I will love you even if you get as fat as a hippo. Burton’s descent into full-blown alcoholism upon the death of his brother Ifor (David Hunt) following a desperate fall in their home in Switzerland is the pivot to the real conclusion of the famous relationship, a second short-lived marriage following one of Taylor’s serious illnesses notwithstanding. There are a lot of books about them but if you want to see something as crazy, turbulent and tragic as they seem to have been, watch this. It’s wonderfully made, completely daft and utterly compelling. Written by Christopher Monger and directed by Lloyd Kramer. I want more

 

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Sondra Locke 05/28/1944-11/03/2018

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The death has been announced of the actress Sondra Locke, who is forever associated with long-time boyfriend Clint Eastwood, a relationship that complicated her life legally and professionally. When it ended she had a sham development deal at Warners supposedly orchestrated by Eastwood which yielded no work, a catastrophic situation sympathetically described by Patrick McGilligan in his biography of Eastwood. The ensuing lawsuits became ‘good faith’ case law precedents. As well as being a talented and charismatic actor she became a serious and distinctive director, most successfully with her debut, Ratboy (1986), then with Theresa Russell in the thriller Impulse (1990). May she rest in peace.

Eureka (1983)

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Aka River of Darkness. Once I had it all. Now I have everything. After 15 years of searching on his own, Arctic prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman), becomes one of the world’s wealthiest men when he literally falls into a mountain of gold in 1925. Twenty years later in 1945, he lives in luxury on Luna Bay, a Caribbean island that he owns. His riches bring no peace of mind as he feels utterly besieged:  he must deal with Helen (Jane Lapotaire), his bored, alcoholic wife; Tracy (Theresa Russell), his headstrong daughter who has married Claude Van Horn (Rutger Hauer) a dissolute, philandering, narcissistic social-climber; and Miami mobsters Aurelio D’Amato (Mickey Rourke) and Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci), who want the island to build a casino off the Florida coast but Jack is resistant to gambling and their frontman Charles Perkins (Ed Lauter) cannot persuade him to do a deal with them. I never made a nickel off another man’s sweat. When Jack is brutally murdered, his son-in-law, Claude, is arrested for the crime and put on trial … One of Nicolas Roeg’s most underrated achievements, this pseudo-biography is a fascinating portrayal of perversion and power, obsession and dread. The texture of the film, contained in lush colour coding, symbols of the occult and the ever-present stench of sex, oozes corruption and greed, decay and desire. Adapted by Paul Mayersberg from Marshall Houts’ book Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes? an account of that real-life murder in the 1940s, in which the author suggests that Meyer Lansky had Oakes killed [Pesci’s role is based on the gangster albeit this carries the conventional disclaimer], this exhibits all the familiar Roegian tropes. It also has echoes of Orson Welles as character, a director who hit the cinematic motherlode first time off the blocks and spent the remainder of his life in a kind of desperation (or so people would like to think). Hence McCann feels larger than life and is dramatised as such with Wagner soundtracking his great – almost psychedelic – discovery and Yukon poet Robert Service’s words Spell of the Yukon amplifying its myth. It isn’t the gold that he wants so much as finding the gold The allusions to Citizen Kane are clear and the portentous character of prostitute/fortune teller Frieda (Helena Kallianiotes) would appear to have at least superficial similarities with Oja Kodar, Welles’ last companion. One moment of rapture followed by decades of despair. The first line of dialogue we hear is Murder! and there is a structure which suggests destiny is being fulfilled. This is a story about disparate characters connected by blood and a morbid wish for ecstasy which suggests life but actually propels towards death. Russell’s testimony in court is gripping and Hauer as the playboy driven by the Kabbalah and other elements of the supernatural is just as good. Hackman is Hackman – he totally inhabits Jack, this man whose greatness is envied by all but whose happiest time was in the wastes of Alaska so long ago, basking in heat and light now but longing for snow.  It is this man’s ability to function as a totally singular individual that creates the chasm between himself and others, gangsters or not.  Internally he knows it is Frieda who led him to the gold that made him the richest man in the world but he decries notions of luck or superstition. His murder is an accurate depiction of what happened to Oakes and it’s terribly gruesome – sadistic and heartless. The first part of the film could be from silent movies – and the bizarre aphoristic dialogue is laughable except that it sets up the sense of supernature which dominates the narrative. Shot by Alex Thomson, edited by that magician of jagged mosaic Tony Lawson, and scored by Stanley Myers (including wonderful double bass solos composed and performed by Francois Rabbath), if this sometimes feels that it has not fully committed to the melodramatic mode (there are a lot of genres at work), the threads of gold and blood make it a satisfying and disturbing watch, with some extraordinary performances bolstering the overall effect. This is all about signs and meaning.  A mystery. The end of the beginning

Wild Things (1998)

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Teenage sexpot Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) is hot for teacher Sam (Matt Dillon), a former lover of her wealthy widowed mother Sandra (Theresa Russell) but he’s not having any. Well, not with her. So she cries Rape and he gets caught up in a very dense web involving loser Suzie (Neve Campbell) who also calls Rape. She was busted for drugs the previous year by Detective Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and suffered 6 months in the clink. When personal injury shyster lawyer Ken (Bill Murray) defends Sam the plot gets as convoluted and murky as a Florida swamp.  The girls admit they made it up because Sam didn’t protect Suzie from prison. Sam celebrates his eventual defamation winnings – by having sex with both girls. They were scamming Sandra for money. And that’s just the start of it. Cross, double cross, murder and betrayal are at the centre of a complex story that opens out like a neverending Russian nesting doll. Twisty Twister McTwisted isn’t in it! Sexy, funny, outrageous and brilliant neo noir. Written by Stephen Peters and directed by John (Henry:  Portrait of a Serial Killer) McNaughton, with a notable score by George Clinton. Super steamy.

Impulse (1990)

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Two of my three favourite actresses (Natalie Wood, Romy Schneider) died aged 43 within 6 months of each other so I was glad Theresa Russell, the third in that triumvirate, made it through 2000 without a scratch. Most of her career to date is renowned for her collaborations with (now ex-) husband Nicolas Roeg, but she also carved out a more mainstream body of work in Hollywood, where she started aged just 17 in The Last Tycoon. Made between Physical Evidence and Whore, she’s Lottie, an undercover vice cop whose streetwalking role leads her into further trouble after a shooting episode and an issue of harassment involving her colleague George Dzundza – which means regular visits to a therapist. She’s falling for DA Jeff Fahey but while undercover trying to entrap a drug smuggler goes to the home of a mob boss who gets shot. She goes from investigator to suspect. Has she been set up? What a rarity this was in 1990 – a film about a woman cop, made by a woman (weirdly, Blue Steel was another one that year). The story by John DeMarco was turned into a screenplay with the action adventure specialist Leigh Chapman (one of those terrific women we hear so little of) and was the second outing as director by Sondra Locke whose longterm relationship with Clint Eastwood hit the skids during production. (Fahey and Dzundza also featured that year in Eastwood’s White Hunter Black Heart, released 6 months later). She and producer Albert S. Ruddy rewrote part of the script. Los Angeles is seen by night and shot by Dean Semler as a neo-noir, amplified in the piano-based score by Michel Colombier. There is notable costume design by Deborah Hopper who has since become Eastwood’s go-to collaborator.  It was practically buried by Warner Bros in their sleazy collusion with Eastwood to destroy Locke’s career. There were two resulting lawsuits  which became mandatory reading for students. You can learn more about that if you must in Patrick McGilligan’s biography of Eastwood but you’ll have to take a shower afterwards. Meanwhile, this is a necessary outing for Theresa completionists and never mind the naysayers.

Straight Time (1978)

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This had a convoluted birth. The novel on which it was based was written by Edward Bunker, a career criminal who wrote it in prison on a typewriter provided by producer Hal B. Wallis’ wife, a woman he’d befriended on the outside. Mrs Wallis died in 1962, Wallis didn’t like her old friends, and Bunker wasn’t finally released until 1975 when he began writing in earnest and No Beast So Fierce finally got published two years before he got out. Dustin Hoffman picked it up and intended that it be his directing debut – which it was, for a few weeks, until it all got a bit much and Ulu Grosbard was brought on board. The screenplay was credited to Bunker, Alvin Sargent and Jeffrey Boam but Nancy Dowd and Michael Mann (the same) were also involved in rewrites. Hoffman plays Max, the ex-con who gets major grief from his parole officer but secures  a job courtesy of a sympathetic recruiter (Theresa Russell). However his attempts to go straight start to go awry when he hooks up with old friend Willy (Gary Busey), a junkie … This is a fine 70s movie, with some of the nihilism and the unclear ending you might expect from films of the era. Hoffman makes the most of his role and with Harry Dean Stanton as support this is pretty fantastic from the point of view of performance. It was the incredible Russell’s sophomore movie, after The Last Tycoon. The following year she would be in the classic TV mini-series Blind Ambition;  the year after, the modern masterpiece, Bad Timing. All by the age of 23. Bunker wrote more novels and screenplays and acted a little – for Tarantino. Who else? (He was Mister Blue.)

Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980)

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Take me to your favourite place in Vienna. One of the great modern films. Directed by Nicolas Roeg from a screenplay by Yale Udoff with costumes by Marit Allen. An incredible, mesmeric performance by Theresa Russell at the age of just 22, opposite Art Garfunkel. Vienna looks incredible. Watch. Listen. Learn. I’ve written about it at http://offscreen.com/view/bad-timing-costumes.