Thursday, September 30, 2010

Habitual Offenders

The challenge starts tomorrow, but I still have a couple of civilian movies to write about first. These will be brief:

Shinsengumi (1969, directed by Tadashi Sawashima) is a middling historical epic produced by star Toshiro Mifune. The story of the Shinsengumi, a band of ronin in the employ of the Tokugawa Shogunate right before the Meiji restoration is almost as popular in Japan as the story of the 47 Ronin. This is the sort of movie that's long on historical incidents that the movie assumes the audience knows about. They tend to be disconnected to the eyes of this gaijin observer, who is ignorant of the details. AnimEigo's DVD of the film includes their standard exhaustive program notes and good thing, too, because this film needs them more than most. Mifune plays Kondo Isami, the head of the Shinsengumi, an honorable man leading a band of less than honorable subordinates. Of his co-commanders, one is an epic drunk and the other commits seppuku after disgracing himself while out whoring at the Gion festival. Once he's on his own, he institutes an iron discipline that urges the band to feats of renown. Unfortunately, the Shinsengumi have backed the wrong horse, and at the end of the movie, Kondo sacrifices himself to allow his men to scatter as the Shogunate falls. The movie itself looks like any number of other chambara movies from the same era--it certainly throws in some gore for the groundlings--though it lacks the subversiveness of movies by Okamoto or Gosha. It does come briefly to life during two sequences: in one, the Shinsengumi's accountant is urged to commit seppuku over a 50 ryo shortfall. This is staged against a snowy backdrop the better to show the blood. In the second, at the very end of the movie, Kondo politely moves his pony tail so his executioner can have a better shot at his neck. But the rest of the movie is kind of a slog.

The Hot Rock (1972, directed by Peter Yates), in which sad sack professional thief John Dortmunder and his band of misfit accomplices must steal the Sahara diamond. And then steal it again. And then again. This is a comedy caper movie, and while Peter Yates directs this with anonymous efficiency and he makes good use of the wide screen in setting up his mayhem, it's the wrong tone. Donald Westlake's book is funnier than the movie, which is hard to explain given that they're as close to each other as any adaptation I can think of. Westlake wins on style points, I guess, though I think my own hang-up with the movie is that it's miscast in almost every particular. Robert Redford, especially, is just too damned good-looking to play a credible Dortmunder, who in personality is more like Bob Newhart than The Sundance Kid. George Segal and Ron Leibman are both actors who chew scenery, even when it's detrimental to the film, as it is here. As a purely personal reaction, I just read one of Westlake's Parker novels, the dark secret sharers of the Dortmunder novels, and it set up a curious double vision as I was watching this. Westlake famously wrote the book with Parker in mind, and, oddly enough, I can see Redford as Parker. Westlake was wise to invent Dortmunder, because I can totally see Parker just shooting everyone involved and having done with it.

Dark Habits (1983, directed by Pedro Almodovar), finds nightclub singer Cristina S. Pascual hiding from the mob among a demented order of nuns (including Almodovar regulars Carmen Maura and Marisa Paredes). What starts off as a kind of ur-Sister Act quickly becomes Pedro's take on nunsploitation. The Mother Superior is a lesbian and a dope fiend. One of the sisters is raising a tiger. Another is taking communion with LSD rather than the Eucharist. One surmises that Pedro saw in nunsploitation a progenitor of his female-centric melodramas, and you can see him working in that direction, but the director was still very much an enfant terrible when he made this, and some the elements he's assembled exist only for their prurient shock value. It's not one of his better movies. There is an uneasy dynamic between Alodovar the provocateur and Almodovar the artist here, which results in a film that's too sober in its mood for the gonzo subject matter. Still, it's eminently watchable, but it's probably for completists only.

1 comment:

Deborah said...

Westlake's books are gleeful and manic and gloomy at the same time. There are 5 thefts in the book as opposed to three in the movie. The book is definitely better. But I think Redford is as good as he possibly could be.

You failed to remark on The Hot Rock's odd place in history; the long, slow helicopter ride around the still-under-construction Twin Towers. Worth noting.