My Week in Movies: Sept. 16-22

Black Rain (1989) You can draw a clear line down the middle of Black Rain that divides “hey, this movie is kinda decent!” and “hey, this movie is kinda awful!” The line can be found in a scene where Andy Garcia sings “What’d I Say” while teaching a Japanese guy how to dance like Ray Charles, a scene that came this close to having me ask out loud, “oh no, movie, what are you doing? WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Before this mini-catastrophe, we get slick, fairly entertaining stuff where a huge-haired Michael Douglas plays a motorcycle racin’ badass cop who’s being investigated for possible crookedness and who, with Garcia, bungles a mission to transport a Japanese criminal back home. Sure, there are some predictable plot turns and questionable dialogue and Kate Capshaw, but for the most part, it works. And then, without warning, the movie turns terrible, piling it on with the “brash Americans and uptight Japanese” culture clashing (Michael Douglas doesn’t know how to use chopsticks ha ha!) and ill-fitting MTV-inspired imagery (including a scene set entirely in a factory that makes lava and sparks, I think?). Some of the later action sequences have flair, but these are too few to truly help. The script doesn’t know what to do with the crooked cop angle, which it uses to make Douglas a tough guy or present half-cocked ethical quandaries, then ignores it all when it’s time to cheer him on as a white hat hero. The film’s questionable morality isn’t as big a problem, however, as its uninspired cop melodrama, a sluggish thriller with few thrills.

The Lady Vanishes (1938) The Hitchcock catalogue of the 1930s is a curious thing. You can see the typical Hitcockiness at play – wry humor and devilish turns abound – but there’s not quite the sense of stylized boldness we find in his later, best-known works. The Lady Vanishes is, despite its action-heavy finale, a rather restrained film, full of British quirk and featuring a mystery that’s quite a slow burn. Rather than amp up the energy (as in, say, the pseudo-remake Flightplan), Hitchcock tends to let the film lean back when the mystery presents itself and mumble “Hmm. Yes. Interesting indeed.” It’s also quite sly, as it allows the mystery to roll along not on the power of conspiracy, but on humanity’s desire to Not Get Involved. Hitchcock loved to examine the dark side of manners, and here, he really lets loose.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) One of my favorite 1950s monster flicks. Sure, it’s corny and dated – it’s a movie where women ride along on a trip to Mars because somebody has to do the dishes, am I right, fellas? – but it also crackles. The build-up to the creature’s reveal is a doozy, especially that trip into the shafts and the reveal of the poor guy who’s alive just enough to creep us out, and the post-reveal attempts to defeat the alien is a terrific game of cat and mouse. What really hooks me every time, though, is the cleverness of the set-up, in which a hero is accused of murder (even though we know from the start he’s innocent). This allows for an extra layer of suspense: how long will the crew go before they realize what’s really up? Granted, the script blows through his exoneration too quickly, denying us some extra tension between the characters, but otherwise it’s a smart addition to an already smart story. Also: bonus points for one of the decade’s finest creature suits.

Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog (2004) In the realm of beautifully told bittersweet modern dramas about dogs, Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog is a worthy companion to Hachi: A Dog’s Tale. And like Hachi, Quill was too long in reaching American audiences, premiering in Japan eight years ago and only recently arriving Stateside. A shame, for this is everything we want in a “dog movie” and nothing we don’t. There’s no forced schmaltz or strained humor or whatever it is they put in those Air Buddies things. This is a gentle film, calm and lovely, delightful even when it’s showing the titular canine producing a healthy dump. Yup, really. And that’s part of its appeal – there’s an honesty at play seldom seen in this genre. The film allows frustrations to play out at their own speed, refusing to condense life’s real problems for the sake of clichéd story beats. While the third act packs in several tearjerking moments (and how), it’s the opening section that sticks with me the most, with director Yôichi Sai filming and editing in a natural documentary style. It took me a few minutes to realize I was watching a work of fiction. Sai drops the style by the second act but maintains its straightforward approach, never overplaying the drama. In a lesser movie, one of the final lines of dialogue would be capitalized, underlined, and highlighted, but in Quill, it’s given a lighter touch – which makes it all the more impactful.

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