Sturm und Drang Under Western Skies

One of the more ambitious and offbeat Westerns of the early sixties, The Last Sunset (1961) is an odd duck that has its admirers and detractors with several participants of the film – director Robert Aldrich, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and star Kirk Douglas – being the most vocal about its flaws and unrealized potential. For a frontier tale that attempts to emulate a Greek tragedy on the range, there is an abundance of plot twists and varying acting styles to keep you riveted to the sight of this often visually stunning box office failure. Themes of revenge, incest, and cowardice infused with an overarching cod psychology are baked in a heavy casserole that includes dust storms, a cattle stampede, quicksand, trigger-happy rustlers, embittered ex-Confederates in the post-Civil War years, marauding Indians and a natural phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s fire. Even Leonard Maltin in his capsule movie review for his popular guide calls it “Strange on the Range.”

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Marching into the Great Unknown

 Occasionally a movie comes along that defies easy categorization and doesn’t cater to audience expectations of any kind. And when the director’s intentions and directorial choices are also never made obvious or explicit, it can result in a baffling but memorable viewing experience. Welcome to Serge Bozon’s La France (2007), which had been widely praised at various film festivals (it was nominated for two awards at the Cannes Film Festival), but never made much of an impact on U.S. film critics and moviegoers.     

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How to Wreck a Hollywood Soiree

You don’t have to go back that many years to compile a long list of Hollywood films in which white actors are cast as Native Americans, Asians, Hispanics, African Americans, Pacific islanders, Arabs, etc. In fact, this controversial practice continues into the 21st century with such conspicuous portrayals like Jake Gyllenhaal as an Afghan orphan in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) and Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger (2013). If you were creating a top ten hall of shame, however, it’s a good bet that Blake Edwards’ The Party (1968) starring Peter Sellers in brownface makeup as Indian film star Hrundi V. Bakshi would be near the top of the list. Yet, the film is considered by many film critics and movie lovers as one of Edwards’ best comedies and has a cult following that has nothing to do with racial stereotypes. It is also considered a radical departure from other comedies of that time for its improvised, almost experimental approach to the genre.  

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Voyeur Villa

Sometimes a film poster doesn’t offer enough information to let you know what kind of movie to expect. Take, for example, Eyes Behind the Wall (Italian title: L’occhio dietro la parete, 1977). The Italian poster suggests it might be an erotic drama with its image of an older man touching the exposed thigh of a younger woman. The background paraphernalia and laboratory setting could also indicate a sci-fi or horror premise. The American poster for the film displays a demented face, an oversize bloody knife and a topless female victim in the style of a trashy giallo. The simple truth is that Eyes Behind the Wall is hard to classify and doesn’t easily fit into any specific genre although you could file it under Eurotrash. While the film is problematic in many regards, it still manages to be consistently intriguing and unpredictable.

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The Case of the Fake MD

Most medical dramas focus on storylines about the inner workings of a hospital, rivalries between staff members, patients in crisis situations or maybe all of the above. Bedside (1934) is unique in that the main character, Dr. J. Herbert Martell aka Bob Brown, isn’t a real doctor at all. He’s only an X-ray technician posing as a MD and his motivation has nothing to do with the Hippocratic Oath. He’s a dirty rotten scoundrel and you know he’s up to no good from the start because he is played by Warren William, a familiar face in films of the Pre-Code period.

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R.W. Fassbinder and Daniel Schmid: Shadow of Angels

In his relatively brief lifetime of 37 years, Rainer Werner Fassbinder turned out 21 feature films, two TV mini-series (Berlin Alexanderplatz, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day), 11 made-for-TV movies, 1 documentary, several film shorts, and numerous theatrical productions. He also helmed an episode of the quasi-documentary/fiction compilation Germany in Autumn (1978), served as producer on other German films like Tenderness of the Wolves (1973) and appeared as an actor, not only in many of his own films but in those of other contemporaries from the New German cinema like Volker Schlondorff. Fassbinder’s role as the contemptuous anti-social rebel Baal (1970), adapted for television by Schlondorff from Bertolt Brecht’s play, is one of his finest performances (Criterion released a beautifully restored version of it on Blu-ray and DVD in March 2018). Equally impressive but lesser known is Daniel Schmid’s Shadow of Angels (Schatten der Engel, 1976), which is based on Fassbinder’s play The Garbage, the City and Death and features R.W. in a pivotal role.

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Lost in Manhattan

Why do so many marriages end in divorce? It usually comes down to a common problem – a lack of communication. After the honeymoon stage, a pattern develops once the couple has children and problems develop from the combined pressures of child-rearing and career demands. Sofia Coppola explores this common quandary in her new film, On the Rocks (2020). Laura (Rashida Jones) is trying to resume her professional career as a writer but her daily responsibilities with two young daughters demands a juggling act that allows little time for creativity. Her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) has recently launched a start-up operation that is requiring more time away from home with office meetings and business trips. As a result, Laura begins to feel an emotional and physical estrangement from Dean. Little signs in his behavior suggest his affections might lie elsewhere. Is he having an affair?     Continue reading