Criterion Sunday 494: Downhill Racer (1969)

This is an interesting film, not least because it wasn’t what I was expecting from a sports movie. In terms of its visual style, it unexpectedly looks forward to those political thrillers that Redford would do in the 1970s, with a sort of shifty energy to the camerawork, which has an almost documentary quality at times, capturing little moments in the lives of these professional skiers competing in various German and French resorts for a place on the Olympic team. That’s not to say it’s perfect; as others have mentioned, it seems to lack the strong driving narrative tension that such movies usually deploy in terms of the arc of the champion towards either ultimate victory or defeat. In that sense, perhaps it’s better to see it as a character study than a traditional sports movie, and as the lead, Redford takes a chance in playing him as a deeply unsympathetic self-involved narcissist. Given the frosty alpine settings, that does tend to make this a tough sell in terms of emotional investment, but somehow that does make it rather interesting at the climax when it’s hard to know whether you want him to succeed or to fail spectacularly. Certainly, he crashes out in personal interrelationships long before he gets a shot at Olympic glory.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Ritchie; Writer James Salter (based on the novel The Downhill Racers by Oakley Hall); Cinematographer Brian Probyn; Starring Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv, Jim McMullan, Kenneth Kirk; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at a hotel (DVD), Queenstown, Saturday 1 January 2022.

Sylvie’s Love (2020)

This didn’t make my favourites list last year, but it was recently released on Amazon Prime streaming, and it’s a gorgeously-mounted period piece about Black people in New York, which makes a change from the usual 1950s NYC milieu.


There’s a lot I really like about this romance film, most of which boils down to the sumptuous setting. It’s late-1950s to early-1960s New York City, and Tessa Thompson is our lead actor, as she falls for the rather earnest (and a little bit wooden) saxophone player Robert Holloway (Nnamdi Asomugha). It’s not ironic or winking at us in any way, nor is it a romcom. I don’t know why I associate this genre primarily with African-American themes, but maybe it’s because some of the greatest recent examples of romance films have been from filmmakers like Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball is practically a template) or have been films like Love Jones. This is hardly as well-written or developed as either of those classics, but is played entirely straight, a period drama that doesn’t pivot around virulent violent racism, but instead is a story about two people in a place learning to navigate their feelings for one another. It’s very sweet, and entirely lovely.

Sylvie's Love film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eugene Ashe; Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Aja Naomi King, Lance Reddick; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at hotel (Amazon streaming), Picton, Monday 28 December 2020.

I’m Your Woman (2020)

Continuing my posts catching up with my favourite films of last year, this is the last film I saw in 2020, and a rather good one too.


I think this crime film works more in thinking back on it than it does while it plays out, in some respects, given the way that it reframes a familiar story from the viewpoint of the gangster’s wife. And not just in presenting a clueless moll character, for Rachel Brosnahan’s Jean is hardly an idiot, but more the way it really throws us as the audience into her perspective as someone who is perpetually in the dark, flailing around trying to understand why the bad things are happening to her with just this nagging sense at the back of her brain of why things might have gone wrong. Her inability to function without her gangster husband’s help becomes what drives the story and provides the arc for her character, as she is helped along by some of her husband’s associates. I suppose part of the worry is that this might become a story in which her self-actualisation is facilitated by the Black characters (Teri, Cal and his father), but the film gives them their own believable arcs, avoiding certain magical cliches, and becoming a film about a lot of people struggling with the pain caused by these (largely unseen) violent white men in their lives. The perspective can make it a little hard to get into, but it’s effective and the denouement is I think fairly won by the screenplay.

I'm Your Woman film posterCREDITS
Director Julia Hart; Writers Hart and Jordan Horowitz; Cinematographer Bryce Fortner; Starring Rachel Brosnahan, Arinzé Kene, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Frankie Faison; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at hotel (Amazon streaming), Picton, Thursday 31 December 2020.

She Dies Tomorrow (2020)

This had a low-key online-only release in the middle of the year, though I’d be interested to see it in a cinema and I hope it does get a chance to get some kind of screenings, maybe in festivals next year — though I wonder whether a lot of films will never now be seen in cinemas? I feel like maybe if anything I underrated it, because it’s striking and expressive and really builds an intensity all of its own, while nodding towards genre classics. The Pure Cinema Pod guys did a whole episode with its director, which is interesting in terms of drawing out these influences, but I felt the film also went a little under the radar, which is a pity.


This is a horror film, but intriguingly (or not, depending on your tastes) it fits more into the modern strain of anxiety-based indie cinema, somewhere between Josephine Decker’s disorienting camerawork and some of the slow-burn intensity of, say, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation. After all, nothing really physically threatening happens in it, but it’s suffused with a sense of dread that invades the characters’ psyches, evoked by a slightly distant acting style, but also inflects the filmmaking itself (some of the colour choices, the expressive editing). It’s definitely a film you either connect with at the level of its acting and atmospherics, or which you discount as a failed experiment. Either way, I think it’s a fascinating film that effectively uses what I imagine is quite a low budget (and quite a few surprising guest stars) to evoke a sense of heightened drama.

She Dies Tomorrow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Amy Seimetz; Cinematographer Jay Keitel; Starring Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Kentucker Audley, Chris Messina; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (BFI Player streaming), Lower Hutt, Wednesday 11 November 2020.

Criterion Sunday 368: Corridors of Blood (1958)

Appropriately, it’s Hallowe’en when I watched this horror film, the last film in Criterion’s “Monsters and Madmen” boxset, which has been a trove of mediocre late-50s genre pieces but just for that has made it somewhat interesting by comparison to their usual fare. This I think is probably one of the best, but it’s also the only one that doesn’t take the horror much beyond the actual period into aliens and monsters, because the real monster here (as in a lot of the best horror) is a very human hubris. Boris Karloff plays a doctor in 1840s London experimenting with various chemicals to create a viable anaesthetic, which inevitably drives him to darker and more morally dubious alleys as he needs access to the drugs. There’s a small role for a young rakish Christopher Lee as a resurrection man and a cabal of shady criminals who are more or less at war with the police. The film is filled with dark shadows and atmospheric sets, and if it never really takes off, it’s more than creditable as a period piece, I think.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writer Jean Scott Rogers; Cinematographer Geoffrey Faithfull; Starring Boris Karloff, Betta St. John, Christopher Lee, Adrienne Corri, Francis de Wolff; Length 86 minutes.

Seen in hotel room (DVD), Hastings, Saturday 31 October 2020.

Criterion Sunday 367: Grip of the Strangler (aka The Haunted Strangler, 1958)

This late-50s monster movie starts out pretty straight, as a Victorian-set police thriller (it appears the original British title was Grip of the Strangler, but it’s more famous under the American title). James Rankin, a private investigator played by Boris Karloff (the casting of whom already tips you off as to the future direction the film might take), looks into the case of the ‘Haymarket Strangler’ 20 years earlier, whom he believes to have been wrongly executed. It’s all fairly clunky in the way it’s put together, as Rankin quickly figures out the whereabouts of the missing murder weapon that’s the key to the case, but you realise when he finds it that this screenwriterly haste is because this is where the film properly starts. Once that happens, there’s plenty of fun in Karloff’s gurning performance, even if it all feels fairly unadventurous. Still, it’s silly fun.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writers John Croydon [as “John C. Cooper”] and Jan Read (based on Read’s story “Stranglehold”); Cinematographer Lionel Banes; Starring Boris Karloff, Jean Kent, Elizabeth Allan; Length 79 minutes.

Seen in hotel room (DVD), Auckland, Wednesday 28 October 2020.

Criterion Sunday 366: The Atomic Submarine (1959)

I appreciate that Criterion really committed to honouring the 1950s B-movie with the box set this film is part of, and this submarine/alien flick is very much in keeping with the ropey special effects and wooden acting that exemplifies the genre. That said, there’s also a keen amateurishness to the enterprise, with the script positing a confluence of submarining and aliens from outer space that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense except perhaps in the feverish mindset of 1950s America. The character interactions are pretty stock — two men who are dead set against one another have to reluctantly come together to fight the alien/marine menace — but it moves along fairly swiftly and is over in well under 90 minutes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Spencer Gordon Bennet; Writers Orville H. Hampton, Irving Block and Jack Rabin; Cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton; Starring Arthur Franz, Dick Foran, Brett Halsey; Length 72 minutes.

Seen in hotel room (DVD), Auckland, Sunday 25 October 2020.

Criterion Sunday 365: First Man into Space (1959)

Remarkable in a sense that this film made it into the Criterion Collection, but I do appreciate their attempts to contextualise certain strands of filmic history (in latter days this probably would’ve made their Eclipse series or just gone to their home streaming channel). Like Fiend Without a Face the previous year, it’s a low-budget British film made to feel like an American production and it helps that it has American actors (however much British people like to think they can do American accents, they rarely can). That said, it’s hardly a bravura film though it has its elegant moments of filmmaking, and some nicely horrific monster costume design, because however much this feels like a ripped-from-the-headlines tale of the new frontier of space exploration (the first man into space wouldn’t be until a couple of years later in 1961), it quickly becomes a morality tale about the dangers that await in exploring these unknown voids.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writers Wyott Ordung, John Croydon and Charles F. Vetter; Cinematographer Geoffrey Faithfull; Starring Marshall Thompson, Bill Edwards, Marla Landi; Length 77 minutes.

Seen in hotel room (DVD), Auckland, Tuesday 20 October 2020.

Global Cinema 23: Botswana – Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale (2016)

I am currently in the process of moving halfway around the world, so some of my regularly scheduled reviews may be a little delayed, and that’s also the reason I haven’t been running my theme weeks. I’ll get back up to speed soon enough I’m sure, when I have better access to films and places to watch them. In the meantime, here’s an older review (and a rather short one) for a Bosnian film, as we’ve reached that country, which has gone through a tumultuous recent history, and emerged as its own sovereign state in recent years.


Batswana flagRepublic of Botswana
population 2,254,000 | capital Gaborone (227k) | largest cities Gaborone, Francistown (100k), Molepolole (68k), Mogoditshane (58k), Maun (56k) | area 581,730 km2 | religion Christianity (73%), none (20%) | official language English, Setswana (or Tswana) | major ethnicity Tswana (79%), Kalanga (11%) | currency Botswana pula (P) [BWP] | internet .bw

A largely flat landlocked country bordering South Africa, with 70% of its territory taken up by the Kalahari Desert and thus one of the most sparsely populated in the world. The name means “land of the Tswana”, the largest ethnic group in the country, though the former name under British colonisation was Bechuanaland. Human remains have been traced back 2 million years, and may have even been the birthplace of modern humans. The original inhabitants were bushmen (San) and Khoi, with Bantu speakers moving in around 600 CE and the first Tswana speakers around the 16th century or earlier. Trade routes via the Limpopo River to the Indian Ocean was largely around ivory and gold in exchange for Asian goods. Various chiefdoms prospered until brought under Batswana control by the late-19th century, resisting incursions by Afrikaner settlers from the south. Comparative peace followed, along with a settled border, and Christian missionaries flourished. Britain claimed the area during the Berlin Conference to protect its trade routes from South Africa, but resisted integrating the territory into South Africa, and independence was granted on 30 September 1966 with Seretse Khama elected as first President (with some of his story told in the 2016 film A United Kingdom). A relatively stable democracy is in place, with an elected President accountable to Parliament.

There is relatively little film production in the country, although it has been used as the location for a number of projects, including the international hit The Gods Must Be Crazy (1981) and its sequel, and a few other Western films.


Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale (2016)

I’m hardly a connoisseur of nature documentaries. This one has some occasionally lovely shots of the Batswana landscape, of elephants and other creatures roaming the wild, while the (mostly white) conservationists and veterinarians who are at the film’s heart watch them and talk about the ways in which they are trying to preserve them from ivory poachers. However, the bulk of the film is taken up by the young elephant of the film’s title, which is tracked from its birth through a difficult childhood as its mother dies, and the doctors need to ensure it continues to live. There’s a bit of drama there, all underscored by swelling music at appropriate moments. I can’t say it was transportative but it gives an idea of the work being done in these African habitats to try and ensure the survival of elephants.

Naledi: A Baby Elephant's Tale film posterCREDITS
Directors Ben Bowie and Geoffrey Luck; Cinematographer Lee Jackson; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at a hotel (Netflix streaming), Auckland, Wednesday 21 October 2020.

Criterion Sunday 361: The Beales of Grey Gardens (2006)

I suppose it was inevitable in this series — especially now that I’m doing them twice a week — that I’d eventually miss an entry, though this isn’t the first. However, as I’ve moved halfway around the world, this one slipped a little as I wasn’t able to watch it before we left. I shall try to avoid any more glaring holes.


It turns out that when the Maysles brothers were filming the Beales for Grey Gardens (1975), they had enough footage to craft this sequel of sorts, revisiting them in their weirdly cut-off little bit of derelict suburbia, as they continue to seem addled and out of time. I suppose it makes clear that any successful documentary at least comes down to the screen presence of its subjects, and the Beales (scions of the same family as Jackie Kennedy) certainly have that, as the elderly mother constantly berates her preening show-offy daughter, while the latter is constantly playing up for the camera, singing songs or swanning around showing off her seemingly homemade fashions. Indeed it becomes almost a familiar rejoinder that the younger Edie says something only for her mother’s voice to pipe in from off camera correcting her or saying that never happened. One wonders at times, as in the original, about the ethics of the thing, as the Beales hardly seem the most present in mind, but it’s fairly benign I think and there’s a lot here for fans of the original.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles and David Maysles; Cinematographer Albert Maysles; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at a hotel (Blu-ray), Auckland, Thursday 15 October 2016.