Sunday, July 2, 2017

7/2/2017: Xenophobes and Jilted Lovers

Black Rain (Ridley Scott, 1989)
This American-cop-in-Japan action/thriller is a colossally dumb slice of xenophobia, but it has plenty of novelty value. It's not much more than a souped-up version of a bottom-of-the-barrel Steven Seagal movie, but it answers a few unasked questions in ways that entertained me against my better judgment, such as what would it look like if Michael Douglas played Steven Seagal playing a cop, and what would happen if we threw several million more dollars at the material and got Ridley Scott to direct it? Michael Douglas looks like he's having fun playing against type as a dick-swaggering macho American loudmouth action hero, and Scott makes Japan look like Blade Runner, full of neon and streets glistening with rain and imposing city skylines at night and smoke and futuristic menace. This is one of the last gasps of the big dumb Reaganite '80s action movies before self-awareness and irony and intentional camp crept in, presented much more stylishly than usual but still plenty troglodytic. Considering how much Japanese culture has influenced American culture in the last few decades (and vice versa), the movie is primarily of use as a fascinating and extremely dated time capsule. The movie regards Japan as a curious oddity ("isn't it strange that every place is not the United States?" the movie asks at every turn), and even commonplace activities like karaoke, eating noodles with chopsticks, and removing shoes before entering a home are portrayed as the height of absurdity and strangeness. The moral of the movie is that Americans are normal, everyone else is weird, and other cultures are improved by becoming more like us. Long story short, Trump is not an anomaly. I enjoyed this movie against my better judgment, probably because it is truly too stupid to be offensive, benefits from Scott's eye, and embraces the formulaic fun of '80s cop and action movies, but Blade Runner it most definitely is not.

The Last Performance (Paul Fejos, 1929)
I'm a huge fan of director Paul Fejos' 1928 film Lonesome, a visually daring, formally inventive, charming romance about two lonely young working-class people in New York City who meet and fall in love on Coney Island on a holiday weekend. The Criterion Collection's recent release of Lonesome includes a much darker Fejos film, The Last Performance, as an extra on the second disc. The Last Performance is not quite as assured as Lonesome, but it benefits from Fejos' formally daring eye and has a great leading performance from Conrad Veidt. The story is a proto-EC Comics tale of jealousy, revenge, and violent comeuppance against a theatrical backdrop. Veidt plays Erik the Great, a Hungarian magician and hypnotist with some spookily occult powers. While performing in the States, he meets and falls in love with one of the performers, the teenage girl Julie (Mary Philbin), and he plans to announce their engagement on her 18th birthday (not creepy at all, right?). Complications come from Erik's assistant, Buffo (Leslie Fenton), who secretly loves Erik (this is conveyed visually, not verbally, because it's 1929, and homosexuality does not exist verbally in 1929 American films, but you better believe it exists visually in many, many, many American films), and a young thief who becomes part of the show when Erik and Julie take pity on him and who falls in love with Julie. I won't reveal the rest, but it involves 12 swords. I believe this may be the first film that includes a judge telling a court that a surprise request to testify is highly unusual/unorthodox but that he will allow it, and my copy of The Overlook Film Encyclopedia of Horror tells me this is the first film to contain an improvised zoom shot. I strongly recommend buying or renting Lonesome and checking out both that film and this one.

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