What do you think? I am open do suggestions but have a couple in mind. We’ll see if we can’t get the initial review out tonight.
Monthly Archives: March 2011
Harakiri (1962) or How I learned to love the bamboo sword.
Harakiri is the commoner’s was of saying “seppuku,” which in Japan is the formal term for ritual suicide by disembowelment. Harakiri is the common term, which literally means “stomach cutting.” It was an integral part of the bushido code of conduct and was ordered by a superior as punishment to redeem some offence, or chosen over a dishonorable death at the hands of an enemy. To the samurai, it was a sign of honor, courage, loyalty, and high moral character of the individual. Except when performed on a battlefield, it was a very formal ceremony, requiring certain etiquette, witnesses and considerable preparation. This ritual only makes me think that the Japanese really needed to take things down a notch or two. There are countless stories where samurai or even lords commit seppuku with a letter or an appeal to a higher authority in order to make sure its contents were taken seriously. That had better be a pretty serious letter. Harakiri is a particularly painful and rather messy way of ending one’s days. In this ritual, the “performer” opens his abdomen, starting from left to right and then finishing from top toward bottom. But there is so need to be left for hours contemplating one’s entrails. Another swordsman, acting as a “second,” stands by to decapitate the person at a pre-arranged moment in the ceremony.
Enough with the history lesson and back to the film. Harakiri is a Japanese film directed by Masaki Kobayashi. The story takes place between 1619 and 1630 during the popular “Edo period” and the long reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate which put an end to hundreds of years of civil war. There was a flip side though—countless unemployed samurai or “ronin” wandering the country in poverty. The movie tells of a ronin, Hanshiro Tsugumo, who was ordered to live so he could care for his daughter, grandson and son-in-law, the son of another samurai who had already committed suicide. That is a lot of death when there was little war.
Our main character, Hanshiro Tsugumo, is trying to find a place to commit seppuku. One tactic a disgraced samurai tried to use in order to receive a little money, would be request, or threat to commit suicide, with the hope of receiving a handout. But Kageyu Saito, the senior counselor to the clan, begins to tell Hanshiro what is clearly a warning about another ronin, Motome Chijiiwa, who made the same request, but the house called his bluff and forced him to kill himself. To try and really hit things home, the counselor pointed out that this chap’s sword was a fake made of blunt bamboo, but that didn’t matter as they still insisted that he fillet himself with it anyway, making the death was excruciatingly painful. In the face of this warning, Tsugumo reiterates his request to commit seppuku.
While the proper steps are taken, Hanshiro Tsugumo begins to recite his tale of hard times to the counselor and the rest of the onlookers. Apparently his lord’s house was a threat to the Shogunate and was destroyed. His friend and samurai did commit seppuku and left Tsugumo to look after his son, who, it turns out, was the one who had to kill himself with the bamboo sword. With the responsibility of looking after his family and son-in-law, Tsugumo did not have the option to choose the “samurai” way to end his life, and was forced to live in abject poverty and work at menial jobs far below his status in order to support his family.
They were so poor that when his grandson and daughter took ill they could not afford to hire a doctor or any other medical care. At this point Tsugumo’s son in law went to the clans house hoping to receive charity by threatening to commit seppuku. But as we know they called his bluff and shortly after his death, his wife and son succumbed to illness and died.
As Tsugumo recites his tale, he had, we come to find out, the day before coming to the lord’s house to request seppuku, tracked down their three top retainers who he blames for the deaths of his family. To really humiliate these three and the clan as well, he does not kill them in combat as he could have but cuts off their topknots—something more humiliating to a samurai that death. Tsugumo tosses the three topknots at the counselor’s feet and points out the reason those three samurai are not there was not illness as they claim but embarrassment from their unwanted haircut.
After finishing his story, Saito orders his retainers to attacked Hanshiro Tsugumo, who fights all of them off alone, killing four and wounding eight while slowly succumbing to his wounds. Then as a new group of men arrive armed with guns, Tsugumo commits seppuku to avoid being killed by the clan. The counselor orders his men to cover up this humiliation by sending them to the three samurai and have them either killed or allowed to commit seppuku—and is told in fact that one already has. The counselor also covers his ass by reporting the damage done by Tsugumo, as the result of “illness.” Without the cover story, word might get out that a scraggly ronin made them look so foolish or worse “loose face” to the other houses.
This film is nothing less than a work of art. Filmed in black and white, Harakiri’s dark story only becomes that much grittier. Exposing the façade of the establishments veneer of respectability by their adherence to the “samurai code,” no stone is left unturned to keep the illusion and status quo alive.
Harakiri is by far one of my favorite “chambara” (the name given to Japanese action films dealing with the Feudal era of Japan) films. It is a great movie all around, its story, cinematography and acting are nothing short of superb. You are missing out if you have not seen this classic.
Here is our third and final installment of our tribute to Burt Reynolds: “Malone” (1987).
When looking at Malone I think it is important to put the film in the context of Reynolds’ career, by the mid ’80s his heyday was unfortunately over, and he ceased to be the superstar he once was. Box office duds like Stick (1985) and Rent-a-Cop (1988), along with unfounded rumors that he had contracted AIDS (he was actually suffering from a joint ailment), were career cyanide. The TV series Evening Shade provided Reynolds a brief pick-up and an Emmy, but when his marriage to Loni Anderson dissolved into an ugly, endless tabloid drama, Reynolds’ career (and product endorsement contracts) nosedived. He made Malone right in the eye of this storm.
Now let’s get one with it. Malone is a 1987 movie, starring Burt Reynolds and written by Christopher Frank and based on a novel by William P. Wingate. In addition to Reynolds, Cliff Robertson and Lauren Hutton also play major roles.
Malone (Burt Reynolds) has been a “wet” operative for the CIA for many years, serving his country by performing assassinations. He was tired of his job and wanted to get out of “the company” (as it is typically called) and live a “normal” life. He is driving through the Pacific Northwest, looking for a place to settle down, when his much-cherished classic Mustang has transmission problems and breaks down outside the town of Comstock. Reynolds manages to get to a small gas station and is treated like family by a Vietnam veteran, who owns the station, and his daughter. They are suffering from the nefarious activities of the local big cheese (Cliff Robertson) to take over all the land in the city and turn it into to some quasi- Posse Comitatus haven for “patriots.” By beating or killing some of the town’s hillbillies (in self-defense), Malone soon runs afoul of the town sheriff who is basically an employee of the developer. By the end of the film, though, he eventually wins the Sherriff’s respect. Starting with the most inept of the sinister henchmen, Malone is gradually drawn into the town drama until he achieves his final pyrotechnic victory and moves on—like Minfune’s Yojimbo or Eastwood’s man with no name.
Meanwhile, the CIA is none too pleased to hear of Malone’s intended retirement and sends a succession of hit-men after him to ensure that he divulges none of their dirty secrets. Malone destroys the first two killers at some cost to his own well-being. The next assassin turns out to be a woman who is susceptible to his charms.
As we know from Sharkey’s Machine, Reynolds is actually not a bad actor when he’s not trying to be “a good old boy” all the time. Cliff Robertson goes eerily over the top while Lauren Hutton is beautiful, brave and loyal (and I would expect nothing less). So what do we do with the formulaic movie clearly made by Reynolds because he needed the money? There is nothing evidently wrong with the film—it doesn’t look low budget, everyone seems to play their parts and get their lines straight. My advice to you is to enjoy it for what it is a damn good bad movie.
Dangerous paid tribute on her site to Japan in light of the natural disasters. So I hereby interrupt this Burt Reynolds tribute to do the same. Ichikawa Raizo stars in the Japanese classic “The Third Shadow” (1963)—you had better turn on the lights.
The Third Shadow (1963) is set circa 1567 in the mountain regions of Hida and stars Ichikawa Raizo as a peasant’s son named “Kyonosuke” who dreams of becoming a samurai. Kyonosuke gets his wish not because of his abilities or character, but because he looks almost exactly like their lord Yasutaka, allowing Raizo to play one of the Lord’s doubles. Well, actually triples in this case, as Raizo is the third of three “shadow men,” but is the one who by far looks the most like Lord Yasutaka.
Sure, as a shadow you get to sleep with the Lord’s beautiful concubines and receive numerous other perks, however the job has its drawbacks too. In order to be convincing as doubles, the shadows must not only act like the Lord, but also maintain their physical resemblance as well (like limping from a sprained ankle). Also during the constant civil wars that plagued Japan in the 15th and 16th centuries lords went into plenty of battles. As part of their bravado, Lords often lead troops into savage conflicts resulting in serious wounds. As a shadow, if the Lord gets a wound, so do you. When the Lord loses his left eye during a battle, one of the shadows flees, knowing full well what is in store for them, but when he fails to escape he is brutally killed. The two remaining shadows (including Raizo) are blinded in their left eyes with a burning poker in order to remain good doubles for their Leader.
When the Lord loses an arm in another battle, only Kyonosuke (Raizo) is in a position to help him. He now understands this will mean one of his own arms will be chopped off, so he decides to kill the Lord and get out of Dodge to continue his pursuit of a samurai career elsewhere. Unfortunately Kyonosuke (Raizo) doesn’t get far and must replace the Lord so that no one finds out he (the Lord) is missing or dead. No one other than Kyonosuke (Raizo) himself knows that he, the Lord’s shadow, killed the missing Lord.
The movie so far has been excellent for its adventure and action. The film takes an interesting turn and develops into an eerie fight for personal identity, similar to Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), when the lord’s imposter (Tatsuya Nakadai) feels he is dying as armies are wiped out before his eyes, even though in fact he has no real connection with those armies. Raizo wants out but no one believes Kyonosuke’s raving insistence that he is merely a peasant, not the Lord, and he ends up locked up as a madman for the rest of his life, the Lord’s insanity becoming the clan’s most closely guarded secret. His dream to be a samurai leads to ironic tragedy in this example of the genre roughly translated as “cruel historicals” or zankoku jidai-geki.
The Third Shadow is a nearly unknown masterpiece with amazing use of shadows and darkness as part of its scenes. Add a plot that is worthy of the cruelties and identity conflicts of Kafka transposed to the samurai era and you have an powerful film.
If you like Asian cinema like I do and can get your hands on the film make sure to see it. If you can’t get your hands on the film but have a sincere desire to watch it, let me know and we’ll see what we can do for you.
Sharkey’s Machine: Who could have guessed that the father from “Family Affair” could play a vice-cop?
Sharkey’s Machine was directed by Burt Reynolds, released in 1981 and remains the most successful box-office movie directed by Reynolds. It has a cast that includes Vittorio Gassman, Brian Keith, Charles Durning, Earl Holliman, Rachel Ward, Bernie Casey, Henry Silva, and Richard Libertini. While these names may not ring an immediate bell, once you see them on screen you will recognize their familiar faces.
Burt Reynolds plays an Atlanta narcotics officer named Tom Sharkey. As the movie opens Sharkey is in the midst of an undercover drug deal but is interrupted by another plainclothes police detective who repeatedly calls out Sharkey’s name causing the drug dealer to panic and began shooting. He vows not to be taken alive and as he is fleeing the scene he takes a woman hostage and ends up on a city bus. As Sharkey and other officers move in shots are exchanged, leading to the death of the drug dealer and a civilian who was seriously wounded. As a result of this deal gone bad, Sharkey is demoted to the Atlanta vice squad—considered the worst assignment in the police department.
While sitting in the basement to which the vice squad has been relegated, Sharkey and his partner discover a ring of high-priced prostitutes—to the tune of $1,000 per night (and that’s 1981 dollars). Sharkey and the rest of his crew, now known as “the Machine,” follow up on the lead and began investigating this ring of high-priced hookers. Their lead is a hooker named Domino (Rachel Ward) and Sharkey’s Machine begins 24-hour surveillance of her penthouse apartment. Sharkey literally never leaves his post continuously watching and listening in on Domino’s life. During their surveillance, Sharkey and Co., discover that Domino is having a relationship with Hotchkins, a candidate running for governor as well as the appearance of a mysterious crime kingpin known as Victor who also shows up at Domino’s apartment. Victor has apparently been controlling Domino since she was a young girl, but now she wants out. Victor agrees but forces her to have sex with him one last time.
The next day, Sharky witnesses (what appears to be) Dominoe get seriously blown away with a shotgun (that is “three inches under legal”) blast through her front door, killing and mutilating her face beyond recognition. Sharky has privately developed feelings for her while watching her through binoculars and listening to her bugged conversations. The killer is known as “Billy Score,” (Henry Silva who always plays a deranged bad guy) is a drug addict, and Victor’s (the mysterious crime boss) brother. Victor controls Score but also the gubernatorial candidate Hotchkins, who is in love with Domino but is blackmailed by Victor.
Surprisingly, Domino walks into her place and is told that her friend Tiffany used her apartment and was mistakenly blown away by Score. Domino halfheartedly leaves with Sharky to be hidden away at his childhood home. To make matters worse, Sharkey’s friend and electronics expert Nosh informs him that the surveillance tapes are gone, begging the question who is the traitor within the department. Nosh is subsequently killed by Score off-screen. A furious Sharkey threatens Victor at his apartment in the Westin Peachtree Plaza and classically vows to bring him to justice. Victor is stunned to be told by Sharky that Domino is still alive and can put him away.
Sharkey is then attacked and confronted by Smiley (a fellow officer) who cuts off two of Sharkey’s fingers while trying to extract Domino’s whereabouts. Sharkey manages to attack and kill Smiley and escape. Later, Sharkey and what is left of his machine take Domino to a Hotchkins political rally where the candidate is placed under arrest. Seeing their lives fall apart around them, Victor and Score become hostile and Score shoots and kills his brother. Sharkey and his machine are right on the scene. Score is pursued, but seems like a ghostly apparition appearing and vanishing, killing “Papa” (Brian Keith) and seriously wounding Arch (Bernie Casey). Sharkey shoots Score, who falls through a window falling to his death. Sharkey then returns to his childhood home, where Domino is now living.
Sharkey’s Machine is a vast departure from Burt’s typical late 1970’s-1980’s films (i.e. Smokey and the Bandit) and he does a damn good job of it. Many people compare Sharkey’s Machine to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies, but I disagree. Sharkey’s Machine is grittier than the Dirty Harry series and has a better supporting cast. While Dirty Harry has “bad guys,” they are not nearly as treacherous as the world of expensive prostitutes and ruthless pimps and drug lords. Moreover, the 220 foot fall from the Hyatt Regency Hotel remains the highest free-fall stunt ever performed from a building for a commercially-released film. The fall was performed by legendary stunt man Dar Robinson.
The problem that both the Dirty Harry series and Sharkey’s Machine face is that they both play on a tired theme: police drama. The cop-genre, though, has been with us since Hollywood started and will probably continue on ad infinitum. Reynolds makes the best of things, though, making Sharkey’s Machine worthy of viewing.
How can one properly review Smokey and the Bandit? I’m not sure but let’s try.
Smokey and the Bandit is a 1977 film starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jackie Gleason, Jerry Reed, Pat McCormick, Paul Williams, and Mike Henry and except for Star Wars was the highest grossing film of 1977. The film was so popular that Trans Am sales increased from 68,745 cars in 1977 to 117,108 by 1979 leading to the joke that director Hal Needham sold more cars than the entire Pontiac sales force combined. I mean, for goodness’ sake, my younger brother has been looking for a “Smokey and the Bandit” 1977 Trans Am for years because of the movie. Now that’s fan loyalty.
The movie starts with a couple of nouveau riche Texans named Big Enos Burdette and his son Little Enos looking for a truck driver to run 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana Texas to a rodeo in Georgia in 28 hours or less totaling 1324 miles. As we know from the opening scene, however, selling or shipping liquor east of the Mississippi River was considered bootlegging and other truck drivers who had tried making this run before were arrested for violating federal and state laws. Big and Little Enos search a local truck rodeo for the legendary Bo “Bandit” Darville (Burt Reynolds). Big and Little Enos offer to pay the Bandit $80,000.00 to make the Coors run — a deal Bandit can’t turn down.
Bandit enlists his friend Cledus “Snowman” Snow (Jerry Reed) to drive the truck (with his dog “Fred”). After demanding an advance from the Burdettes for a “speedy car,” the Bandit get the now infamous 1977 Black Pontiac Trans Am to run as the blocking vehicle to distract the authorities from the truck and its illegal cargo.
Bandit and Snowman pick up the beer in Texas with time to spare. Bandit, however, picks up Carrie (Sally Field) who is wearing a wedding dress. We come to find out that she jilted the groom (“Junior”) at the altar and that her would be father in law Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) is on the hunt to drag her back to town. Since the Bandit has Carrie, Buford T. Justice now wants the Bandit. The rest of the movie is Buford T. Justice in “hot pursuit” of the Bandit through several states and Bandit evading him and other authorities with his now famous Trans Am.
Yes, eventually Bandit and Snowman barely win the bet and are not captured by the law, but it is the journey, not the destination, that matters.
Yes, Burt Reynolds is great in this movie, making it one of his signature parts, but my thinking here is that Jackie Gleason puts on the best performance of the show. He portrays the quintessential Texas law man perfectly embodying every stereotype possible throughout the film making one outrageous statement after the other. Apparently, a significant portion of Gleason’s screen time was improvised, which only illustrates (at least to me) just how talented he was. Mr. Gleason’s performance creates one of the greatest comic characters in film history and demonstrates that he was one of the greatest American comic actors of all time. If by some perverted twist of fate you have not seen Smokey and the Bandit, watch it and I think you’ll agree with me. And if you don’t, you have no sense of humor.