An Olympic Film Review: Downhill Racer (dir by Michael Ritchie)


For the past few days, like all good people, I have been totally obsessed with the Winter Olympics!  Last week, I asked my friends to suggest some Winter Olympic-themed movies that I could watch and review.  More than a few of them immediately recommended that I check out a film called Downhill Racer.

First released in 1969, Downhill Racer tells the story of David Chappellet (a very young and very handsome Robert Redford).  When we first meet David, he’s just arrived in Switzerland.  An alternate to the U.S. ski team, David has been summoned by Coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman) to replace an injured skier.  From the minute that David arrives, it’s obvious that he’s not interested in being anyone’s friend.  He’s upset that he was an alternate.  He’s upset that he’s going to be skiing so late in the competition.  He’s upset about … well, almost everything.  Unlike the rest of his teammates, he’s a loner and he rarely has much to say.  He cares about one thing: winning championships and being recognized as the best.  David is not a particularly likable character.  However, the fact that he doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks about him is one of the things that makes him compelling.  Add to that, David quickly proves himself to be one of the best.  He may be arrogant but, more often than not, he can back up his pride.

Why is David so driven?  We get some clues when David returns to his hometown in Idaho.  Even though everyone in the town knows him and he doesn’t have any trouble convincing a former girlfriend to go off with him, David still seems out-of-place.  When he visits his father, the taciturn man is not impressed by David’s success.  As his father puts it, the world is full of champions.  Why should David deserve any more praise than anyone else?

Standing in contrast to the reservered David is Coach Claire.  Whereas David is reserved, Claire is passionate.  Whereas David is an unapologetic loner, Claire is willing to fight for every member of his team.  Whereas David reacts to a crash by refusing to accept that he made a mistake, Coach Claire is always brutally honest.  David couldn’t be a champion without Claire’s help but, in the end, the Coach is destined to remain in the background while David signs lucrative sponsorship deals and becomes a hero to television viewers everywhere.

It’s a familiar story, though perhaps it wasn’t as familiar in 1969 as it is today.  Today, we’ve grown accustomed to the idea that celebrities can be jerks and that “heroes” are often just manufactured idols.  (Downhill Racer has a good deal of fun with the shallowness of the media’s coverage of David Chappellett’s career.)  That said, familiar or not, there’s a good deal of authenticity to be found in the performances of both Redford and Hackman.  It takes a bit of courage to play a character who is as narcissistic and arrogant as David Chappellett but, even more so, it takes talent to make that character compelling.  As for Hackman, he’s the ideal coach.  He knows both how to get the best out of Chappellett but also when to call him out on his crap.  From the minute we meet the Coach, we knows that he cares but we also know that he’s seen a lot of David Chappelletts come and go over the years.

Of course, the main reason to watch Downhill Racer is because of the racing scenes, many of which were filmed as a point-of-view shot, putting you in the skis as the frozen landscape flies past you.  They are amazing to watch.  I’ve never been skiing, which is probably a good thing when you consider that I’m a bit accident-prone.  But the skiing sequences in Downhill Racer left me breathless, shaken, and exhilarated.

Downhill Racer is definitely one to watch, during the Olympics or any other time.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Dodsworth (dir by William Wyler)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1936 best picture nominee, Dodsworth!)

Dodsworth is the type of film that makes me thankful for both TCM and my own obsession with Oscar history.

Based on a Sidney Howard-penned stage adaptation of a Sinclair Lewis novel, Dodsworth tells the story of an American couple abroad and how their travels change them as both individuals and as a couple.  Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is a wealthy man living in the middle of the United States.  20 years ago, he founded Dodsworth Motors and now, he’s finally reached the point where he can sell his company and retire.  Sam doesn’t have any big plans, not yet anyway.  Mostly, he just wants to visit Europe with his wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton).  They’ve never been.

Walter Huston is perfectly cast as Sam Dodsworth.  When we first meet Sam, we’re not really sure whether we’re going to like him or not.  He seems to be a decent human being but he also seems to be rather resistant to change.  He’s a self-made man.  He’s smart but he’s not well-educated.  He’s honest but he’s stubborn.  He’s rich but he’s hardly sophisticated.  He says that he wants to experience new things but we can’t help but wonder how he’s going to react when he actually has the opportunity.

The cracks in Sam and Fran’s marriage become obvious as soon as they board a luxury liner heading for England.  Sam meets another traveler, Edith (Mary Astor).  Edith is divorced and lives in Italy, two things that make her very exotic to a proud product of middle America like Sam Dodsworth.  Edith and Sam immediately hit it off but there’s no way that Sam would ever consider having an affair.  Meanwhile, Fran finds herself attracted to a series of different Europeans, played by David Niven, Paul Lukas, and Gregory Gaye.  While Fran loves Europe, Sam finds himself yearning to return to the small town world that he knows best.

For a film that was released 82 years ago, Dodsworth remains a remarkably watchable and involving film.  Along with featuring brilliant lead performances from Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor, Dodsworth touches on universal themes that remains as relevant as today as when the film was first released.  Though neither Sam nor Fran would probably recognize the term, their trip to Europe leads to an existential crisis that will be familiar to anyone who has ever looked at their life and wondered, “Is this all there is?”  At the start of the film, both characters believe that they’ve found perfection in their marriage, their family, and their money.  By the end of the movie, both of them realize just how wrong they were.

If not for my love of Oscar history, I never would have seen Dodsworth listed among the films nominated for best picture of 1936.  And, if not for TCM, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to DVR Dodsworth this morning and then watch it earlier tonight.  That’s why it pays to know your history and to take chances on films of which you previously may not have heard.

Dodsworth was nominated for 7 Academy Awards but it only won the Oscar for Best Art Direction.  It lost Best Picture to a far less memorable film, The Great Ziegfield.

A New Orleans Film Review: J.D.’s Revenge (dir by Arthur Marks)


Ike (Glynn Turman) is a nice guy.  He’s a law student living in New Orleans.  When not studying, he makes money driving a taxi cab.  He has a beautiful and loving wife named Christella (Joan Pringle).  He has a nice but modest apartment.  When we first see Ike, he is calmly and rationally breaking up a fight.  Perhaps the only real complain that can be made about Ike is that he’s actually too nice.  There’s nothing dangerous about Ike.  He works hard.  He studies.  That’s about it.

When Christella and their friends tell him that he needs to take a night off from studying, Ike is reluctant.  However, he finally agrees to go out with them.  They start out at a strip club in the French Quarter and eventually, they end up watching a hypnotist.  Ike is one of the men randomly selected to go up on stage.  Amazingly, rational and mild Ike is easily hypnotized.  The audience loves watching as Ike and the other men all reacts to hypnotic suggestion.  What they don’t know is that, while in his trance, Ike has been … possessed!

That’s right!  The ghost of J.D. Walker has entered Ike.  Who is J.D. Walker?  As we learn from a series of gauzy flashbacks, J.D. Walker was a gangster in the 1940s.  He wore a fedora.  He wore nice suits.  He was every bit as flamboyant as Ike is mild.  But then, one day, J.D. was killed, gunned down by his former business partner, Theotis Bliss (Fred Pinkard).

Soon, Ike starts to act … well, not like himself.  Suddenly, Ike is using 1940s slang.  He’s wearing 1940s clothes.  He’s gambling.  He mugs an old lady who gets in his cab and then abandons her on the wharf.  When his wife asks him why he’s acting like a 1940s gangster, he gets violent.  Soon, Ike is speaking in a different voice and dancing.

What does J.D. want?  He wants revenge against not only the man who shot him but also Theotis’s younger brother, a popular preacher named Elijah (Lou Gossett, Jr.).  As wild as the possessed Ike may be, he’s got nothing on Elijah.  Elijah was a boxer before he became a man of God and he’s still liable to throw a punch or two during his sermons.  Elijah, however, is also rather naive and has no hesitation about inviting J.D. to become a member of his congregation.  Theotis, who is now Elijah’s manager, is a bit more suspicious…

An oddly paced film that never quite escapes the lengthy shadows of all of the horror films that inspired it, J.D.’s Revenge is worth seeing for the performances Glynn Thurman and Lou Gossett, Jr.  Gossett is all energetic charisma in the role of the reverend, giving a performance that features just enough ambiguity that you’re never sure whether you should trust Elijah or not.  Meanwhile, Thurman is very good as the mild-mannered Ike but he seems to be having an absolute blast whenever he gets to play the psychotic J.D.  During the final confrontation between Ike/J.D. and the Bliss Brothers, Thurman’s performance is so bizarre and over the top that you simply cannot stop watching him.

J.D.’s Revenge was filmed in New Orleans, which add a little bit of gothic atmosphere to the film.  As I write this, a lot of our readers may currently be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  I wish them all well but I hope they’ll remember the lesson of J.D.’s Revenge.  Just say no to hypnosis!

Art Profile: Love Story Magazine


Love Story Magazine was published from 1921 to 1947 and it was one of the most popular pulp magazines of the day.  Is that a surprise?  Everyone loves a good love story!

Check out these lovely covers from Love Story Magazine:

by P.J. Monahan

by Modest Stein

by Modest Stein

by Modest Stein

by Modest Stein

by Modest Stein

by Modest Stein

by H. Leavitt Purdy

Scenes that I Love: The Iguanas On The Coffee Tables From Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans


If you’re in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, please be sure to keep an eye out for the iguanas.

Ever since Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was first released, people have debated the symbolism of the iguanas on the coffee table.  Are they just a sign that Nicolas Cage’s bad lieutenant is totally high or do they have a deeper meaning?  Myself, I’m not even going to try to guess.  All I know is that the lieutenant eventually came to appreciate their presence.

Music Video of the Day: New Orleans by Former Ghosts (2010, dir by Michael Fierstein)


Seeing as how tomorrow is, depending on where you live, either Fat or Shrove Tuesday, I decided why not share a music video about New Orleans?

It probably says something about the way I view the world that, whenever I see this video, I’m always expecting that it’s going to turn out that our group of friends is trying to cover up a murder or something.  The whole video gives off a “We accidentally killed a guy, let’s have a good time before we have to find a place to bury him,” vibe.  Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

This video was directed by Michael Fierstein.  Steven Andrew Garcia was the director of photography.

Enjoy!