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.

A Movie A Day #39: Prime Cut (1972, directed by Michael Ritchie)


primecutNick Devlin (Lee Marvin) is a veteran enforcer for the Chicago mob.  His latest assignment has taken him out of the city and sent him to the farmlands of Kansas.  Nick is the third enforcer to be sent to Kansas, all to collect a $500,000 debt from a local crime boss named Mary Ann (Gene Hackman).  The first one ended up floating face down in the Missouri River.  The second was chopped up into sausages at the local slaughterhouse.  Nick might have better luck because he once had an affair with Mary Ann’s wife, Clarabelle (Angel Tompkins).

When Nick tracks down Mary Ann to demand the money, he discovers that Mary Ann and his brother Weenie (Gregory Walcott, best remembered for his starring role in Plan 9 From Outer Space) are running a white slavery ring.  Kidnapping girls from a nearby orphanage, Mary Ann and Weenie keep them naked and doped up in a barn.  One of the girls, Poppy (Sissy Spacek, in her film debut), looks up at Nick and says, “Help me.”  Nick takes Poppy with him, claiming that he’s holding her for collateral until he gets the money.

The main attraction here is to see two iconic tough guys — Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman — fighting over Sissy Spacek, who is only slightly less spacey here than in her breakthrough role in Badlands.  In Prime Cut, the ruthless Chicago mobster turns out to have more of a conscience than the rural good old boys who work for Mary Ann and Weenie.  Nothing sums up Prime Cut better than the scene where Lee Marvin, wearing a black suit, and Sissy Spacek are pursued through a wheat field by a thrasher that’s being driven by a roly-poly farmer wearing overalls.  Prime Cut is both an exciting crime film and a trenchant satire of both the American heartland and the type of gangster movies that made Lee Marvin famous.

Shattered Politics #30: The Candidate (dir by Michael Ritchie)


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“What do we do now?” — Democratic senate candidate Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate (1972)

When I reviewed Advise & Consent, I mentioned that if anyone could prevent billionaire Tom Steyer from winning the Democratic nomination to run in the 2016 California U.S. Senate election, it would be Betty White.  Well, earlier today, Tom Steyer announced that he would NOT be a candidate.  You can guess what that means.  Betty White has obviously already started to set up her campaign organization in California and, realizing that there was no way that he could possibly beat her, Tom Steyer obviously decided to step aside.

So, congratulations to Betty White!  (I would probably never vote for her but I don’t live in California so it doesn’t matter.)  As future U.S. Senator Betty White prepares for the next phase of her career, it would probably be a good idea for her to watch a few movies about what it takes to win political office in the United States.

For example: 1972’s The Candidate.

The Candidate would especially be a good pick for the nascent Betty White senate campaign because the film is actually about a senate election in California!  California’s  U.S. Sen. Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) is a Republican who everyone assumes cannot be defeated for reelection.  Democratic strategist Marvin Lucas (a heavily bearded Peter Boyle) is tasked with finding a sacrificial candidate.

The one that Marvin comes up with is Bill McKay (Robert Redford, before his face got all leathery), a 34 year-old lawyer who also happens to be the estranged son of former Governor John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas, whose wife Helen ran for one of California’s senate seats in 1950).  As opposed to his pragmatic and ruthless father, Bill is idealistic and the only reason that he agrees to run for the Senate is because Marvin promises him that he’ll be able to say whatever he wants.  Marvin assures Bill that Jarmon cannot be beaten but if Bill runs a credible campaign, he’ll be able to run for another office in the future.

However, Jarmon turns out to be a weaker candidate than everyone assumed.  As the charismatic Bill starts to close the gap between himself and Jarmon, he also starts to lose control of his campaign.  He soon finds himself moderating his positions and worrying more about alienating potential voters than stating his true opinions.  (In one of the film’s best scenes, Bill scornfully mutters his standard and generic campaign speech to himself, obviously disgusted with the vapid words that he has to utter in order to be elected.)  The film ends on a properly downbeat note, one that reminds you that the film was made in the 70s but also remains just as relevant and thought-provoking in 2015.

Written by a former political speech writer and directed, in a semi-documentary style, by Michael Ritchie, The Candidate is an excellent film that answer the question as to why all political campaigns and politicians seem to be the same.  The Candidate is full of small details that give the film an air of authenticity even when a familiar face like Robert Redford is on screen.

Whenever I watch The Candidate, I find myself wondering what happened to Bill McKay after the film’s iconic final scene.  Did he ever regain his idealism or did he continue on the path to just becoming another politician.  As much as we’d all like to think that the former is true, it’s actually probably the latter.

That just seems to be the way that things go.

Hopefully, Betty White will learn from Bill McKay’s example.

Guilty Pleasure No. 6: The Golden Child


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During the 80’s there were three names who earned the title of megastars. There was Sylvester Stallone with his Rocky and Rambo films. There was also Arnold Schwarzenneger who was pretty much the biggest action star of the decade. Then there’s Eddie Murphy who pretty much redefined the role of comedic action star. Yes, Murphy was an action star in his own right.

Once Murphy made a huge hit with the odd couple action comedy 48 Hours he began making one action comedy after the next. They all made money and to certain degree they were actually pretty good. There was one Murphy action comedy vehicle that was initially well-received by many when it came out in December of 1986, but has since seen a revisionist take from those who originally hyped up the film. I’m talking about The Golden Child.

Many who seem to have enjoyed and loved this film when it first came out has since backtracked to calling it one of the worst films of the 80’s. A film that indulges the ego of it’s star. While I agree with everything people have said about this film with each passing year I still can’t keep myself from enjoying it whenever it comes on cable (been awhile since it has). It was a fun flick when I first saw it as a 13 year-old and it continues to be fun.

Yes, it hasn’t aged well, but I think how it encompasses the kitchy-style of the 80’s not to mention the egocentricity of Murphy at the height of his stardom makes this one of my guilty pleasures. It even has a much y ounger, but still badass, Tywin Lannister playing the role of the main villain Sardo Numpsa aka Brother Numpsy.

Scenes That I Love: The Candidate


(SPOILER WARNING)

It’s election day!  Today is the day that American citizens select the person that they’ll be angry with for the next four years.  Have you voted yet?  I did and, after I turned in my ballot, this guy at the polling place told me that I was the prettiest voter that he had seen all day.  Awwwwww!

Today’s scene that I love is particularly appropriate for Election Day.  In The Candidate (1972), Bill McKay (played by Robert Redford) runs for the U.S. Senate.  Directed in a documentary fashion by Michael Ritchie, The Candidate features excellent supporting performances from Melvyn Douglas and Peter Boyle and it’s one of the best films ever made about the American political system.

The scene below takes place at the end of the film, after the votes have been counted.  And, of course, the entire scene is a spoiler so don’t watch it if you haven’t seen The Candidate.