Allen, Assonitis, Korda, Stromberg, Tetzlaff

Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014). This piece of fairy tale revisionism might be more affecting if it didn’t arrive on the heels of the same studio’s Frozen, which pulled off basically the same switcheroo (including the subversion of the “true love’s kiss” trope) with more spirit. Judging from what’s onscreen, not much thought went into this project after the dream casting of Angelina Jolie was secured. The certainty that her presence as one of the most iconic villains in the annals of Disney Animated Classics would be enough to make the film compelling comes tantalizing close to becoming a proven truth. It’s fun to watch her play around devilishly with the role, even if there’s also a prevailing sense that a turn like this is desperately easy for her, and she has only the slightest inclination to dig deeper. Problems abound elsewhere, especially with the cheaply precious comedy of three fairies charged with protecting the cursed princess (Elle Fanning, gamely beaming but with nothing much to do) and the drastically overheated performance by Sharlto Copley as the evil royalty who set Maleficent on her unpleasant course. Copley may be striving for the same sort of knowing parody that Jolie coolly suggests, but he comes across as shrill, manic, and amateurish. A first-time director, Stromberg merely holds on for dear life.

To Rome with Love (Woody Allen, 2012). This delivers four different stories set in Rome, loosely bundled, which gives the film the feeling of paging back and forth between offerings in one of Allen’s old collections, like Without Feathers or Side Effects. Alternating between the different stories may be meant to give the film more cohesion, but it severely undercuts the effectiveness of the film, especially as it accentuates the wildly varying quality of the different segments. The most interesting by far is one that casts Alec Baldwin as a sort of one-man Greek chorus to his younger self (Jesse Eisenberg) as he ponders an affair. That’s the only piece that develops enough creative and structural wit to make it worthwhile. There’s also a surprisingly nice performance by Roberto Benigni in an otherwise drab one-joke segment about a man who gets sudden, unexplained fame. Allen’s late career has been desperately hit-or-miss. To Rome with Love at least has the efficiency to handle both extremes in a single film.

Tentacles (Ovidio G. Assonitis, 1977). The runaway success of Jaws led to a bevy of watery ripoffs. It would take a remarkable amount of effort to find one both cheaper and loopier than this tale of a powerful octopus, driven to murderous rage by the noises created by an underwater drilling company. Directed by Egyptian-born Assonitis (who later returned to the depths by co-writing James Cameron’s feature film debut, Piranha II: The Spawning), the movie is notably pedestrian, enlivened only by the combination of awkward European unknown actors and old movie stars picking up one of those sad late-career paychecks. The latter group includes two-time Academy Award-winner Shelley Winters, who caps off her first scene by making a Bloody Mary comprise of nothing more than vodka and room-temperature tomato juice. It’s far sadder to see Henry Fonda creaking his way through the film, looking miserable throughout.

The Macomber Affair (Zoltan Korda, 1947). This adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel casts Gregory Peck as a hunter-for-hire in Kenya who is enlisted by a traveling couple (Joan Bennett and Robert Preston) on an excursion meant to mend their ailing marriage. Things go desperately wrong, sending the husband home in a body bag, and most of the film is the slow unfolding of how the ill turn came to pass. The performances are all solid enough, but Korda’s direction is a little too vanilla to pull out the florid melodrama of the work. Instead, the delusional machismo that represents the worst of Hemingway is presented as unquestioned fact, even as the story itself can be read as an exposure of the deadly folly of the mindset. The film ultimately has too much surface emotion and not enough nuance to be effective.

Riff-Raff (Ted Tetzlaff, 1947). I can pay no higher compliment to this noirish detective drama than to say it plays like the seedling from which the vast garden of the Coen brothers oeuvre sprung. Pat O’Brien plays a private dick in Panama who is enlisted by multiple shady characters trying to retrieve a lost map, a tangle of allegiances that he largely surveys with lackadaisical amusement. The plot is incidental to pleasure of barbed dialogue and characters connecting like sparklers setting each other ablaze. Tetzlaff was making his directorial debut following a distinguished career as a cinematographer, including the previous year’s Alfred Hitchcock wonder Notorious. He brings that skill at shooting a movie to creating a stylish work that never lets technique swamp the necessity of clearly, smartly telling a story. It’s a terrific film that a smart filmmaker could use as the foundation for a stellar remake.

Bayona, Lang, Moore, Sturges, Webb

The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2012). At the very core of The Impossible is the commonplace sin of depicting a real-life tragedy in an Asian land through the experience of well-to-do, white, European travelers. The devastating tsunami that struck countries on the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004 killed approximately a quarter of a million people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand, but its obviously rich vacationers played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor whose story whose story needs to be told. This could be acceptable–albeit begrudgingly so–if the film still carried the sort of emotional weight that should be easy to come by given the situation. Instead, it feels as phony as can be, even when some of the shards of detail have a faint aura of authenticity. Director Juan Antonio Bayona stages individual scenes with a inquisitive respect for the power of the storm and the ragged mayhem of its aftermath. It’s the human elements that apparently bore him. Watts brings a game physical commitment to her performance, but, as with almost everyone else, she’s given a hollowed-out character to play. She strains and crumples convincingly, which doesn’t adequately compensate for the simple humanity that’s missing.

Wreck It Ralph (Rich Moore, 2012). Another stepping stone in John Lasseter’s Frogger-style hopping path to bringing some of the Pixar storytelling skill to the previously staid Disney Animation group, a process that arguably finally started banging out a steady fountain of gold coins with last year’s Frozen. This tale of the title character, a video game villain voiced by John C. Reilly, who finds redemption through an epic adventure across a different video game platform is funny enough and marked by just enough charm. It doesn’t take full advantage of the possibilities of the video game, settling for a clever, melancholy, passing use of the Q*Bert cast as the best exploitation of the source inspiration. The film is otherwise fairly conventional, complete with some obvious plot points. Rich Moore brings an admirable energy to the directing, perhaps thanks to his experience presiding over some of the very best episodes of The Simpsons.

The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges, 1940). The directorial debut of Preston Sturges, undertaken after he agreed to sell the script for a highly discounted rate (reportedly one measly dollar) if the studio would allow him to literally call the shots. He’d been dissatisfied with how others had handled his earlier efforts. While he lacks the panache evident in subsequent films, he certainly commits to the comic cynicism of his story. The title character (Brian Donlevy) begins the story as a vagrant making a quick buck with prolific participation in voter fraud. His ambition gets him invited into the inner circle of the crooked politicians, and his crooked star swells from there. As bold as The Great McGinty is, it’s just shaky enough that it’s main appeal is as a foundational work for a filmmaker who was about to become absolutely masterful, doing so with uncommon speed and clarity.

The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1944). This twisty film noir from Fritz Lang amusingly taps into the paranoid certainty that any dalliance with moral malfeasance is likely to lead to a tar pit of trouble. To put it another way, if the gorgeous, glamorous woman who inspires obsessive thoughts is coming on to a regular schmo, it’s probably not going to end well for the schmo. Edward G. Robinson plays a college professor who is enjoying a night out when his family is away, encountering a lovely woman (Joan Bennett) who he’d previously spotted in a portrait hanging in a storefront. He accompanies her home, which leads to accidental involvement in a major crime. The rest of the film is largely comprised of the professor squirming as his district attorney pal edges closer to figuring out the mystery. Based on a novel by J.H. Wallis, the screenplay (credited to Nunnally Johnson, also the producer) cleverly depicts all the small ways that the professor trips up, revealing a more intimate knowledge of the crime than he could have possibly gleaned from newspaper reports. Robinson is highly enjoyable in the role, and Lang directs with his trademark sense of dark style. The film contains a final twist, the hoariest of narrative escape hatches, that doesn’t quite eradicate the goodwill the rest of the film builds up, but it comes remarkably close.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, 2014). The lackluster reboot gets its inevitable sequel. In Sam Raimi’s second outing with the web-slinger during the first go-round of Marvel’s most famous comic book character as a modern studio tentpole, the director excelled in large part by shrewdly correcting the flaws of the first installment. Marc Webb as his collaborators have no such instinct, basically doubling down on all the weakest elements of The Amazing Spider-Man while also adhering to the apparent necessity to load the film with ever more, more, more. Even the little kid in front of us at the theater was grousing. “Another bad guy?” she incredulously asked at one point. Andrew Garfield remains game and enthusiastic as Peter Parker, but the screenplay is pat rather than clever, robbing the character of the whip-smart sense of humor that helps define him on the colorful page. The rapport between Garfield and Emma Stone (as Gwen Stacy) is so light and lovely that it inspires dreams of better material for them to share.

Faxon and Rash, Kasdan, Lloyd, Lord and Miller, Snyder

Darling Companion (Lawrence Kasdan, 2012). I’ve got loads of residual affection for writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, but he sure doesn’t make it easy to be one of his defenders these days. Darling Companion was his first film in nearly decade, following the appallingly bad Stephen King adaptation Dreamcatcher. It doesn’t make an argument that he used his creative downtime wisely. As wispy of a film concept as anyone’s likely to come across, Kasdan’s story (co-written with his wife, Meg Kasdan) concerns an older couple who adopt a stray dog and then lose that new furry family member in the woods around their Colorado vacation cabin. And that’s about it. There are different personal conflicts and evolving relationships at play among the extended group of family and friends staying with them at the cabin, mildly heightened by the stress of the absent pet, but they have no depth or bite. Kasdan assembles a stacked cast that includes Kevin Kline, Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, and, in a dinky part that could heave been written in its entirety on the back of a PetSmart receipt, Elisabeth Moss, causing my partner-in-all-things to refer to the movie as “interesting actors doing uninteresting things.” She’s spot-on.

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013). The kindest thing I can say about Zack Snyder’s reboot of Bryan Singer’s reboot of the adventures of the original superhero and the last son of Krypton is the director’s worst tics, the stuff that makes other entries in his filmography downright unwatchable, are largely tamed. The oppressive slo-mo and fetishistic sexualization of everything in sight may be gone, but Snyder still has an evident love of the garishly bombastic. By all evidence, he values cool shots over all else, which could be acceptable if his version of striking visuals wasn’t mired in some bizarre arrested development version of thought and creativity. Everything across the film’s overlong running time comes across as the very first idea presented that made Snyder helplessly mutter, “Killer.” It’s a rough draft of awesomeness. It’s also incredibly boring, proof that bigger sometimes leads to nothing more than bludgeoning excess. No one in the cast distinguishes themselves, but special scorn is necessary for Russell Crowe’s amateurish shouting as Jor-El, Superman’s pop from across the universe.

The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011). I read recently that Phyllida Lloyd maintains she was being completely deliberate with the hacky, cheesy elements of her directing job on the dreadful big-screen jukebox musical Mamma Mia! I wonder, then, what her excuse for the same bumbling, ham-fisted approach to staging and developing insight that crops up in her presumably serious attempt at making a biopic of legendary, controversial U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Played by Meryl Streep (and, for a surprisingly amount of time, Alexandra Roach), Thatcher is ultimately more of a witness to history than she is a shaper of it. Her vaunted steeliness–which gives the film it’s very title–is in evidence in only the most facile way, in scenes that play like weak tea drama. Streep finally won her third Oscar for her performance here, but the work was basically incidental. With far more nominations than any other actor, she was going to get rewarded again, and the time had simply come. It’s not a bad performance, but nothing really distinguishes it from boilerplate docudrama either.

The Way Way Back (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, 2013). The writing team that got to stand near Alexander Payne as he gave a speech when they all won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for The Descendants may have been obscured in his heavy auteur shadow, but at least they got to leverage that experience into making their directorial debut. Supposedly pulled somewhat from the youthful experiences of co-director Jim Rash, the film is a fairly standard-issue slice-of-life, coming-of-age movie, settling into a crummy water park to help give it some added flavor. The film has its moments, many directly attributable to Sam Rockwell doing his Sam Rockwell thing as a mentor of mild ill repute the youthful protagonist (Liam James) gravitates to at the park. Rash and Nat Faxon pull the whole thing together with a reasonable skill and an eye for the occasional telling moment or side detail. It could use some more storytelling meat to make it seem like it has a real reason for being as a film.

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014). I think some of the heady praise doled out to The Lego Movie is an indication that a lot of critics were rounding up, but it’s hard to deny that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller spun up art from the unlikeliest clay. Or, rather, plastic. Just as they’ve done in the Jump Street films, the pair sidestep the pitfalls of crassly conceived material by calling attention to the shallowness of it all, creating by explicitly pointing out how they’re creating it, cheekily mocking all the inherent contradictions and compromises along the way. It’s remarkable that a condemnation of Lego’s current business model of ready-made construction kits is one of the less subversive elements of the film. It’s occasionally a little sloppy and the pathos of the very weird third act twist sits a little awkwardly against the rest of the movie’s wild energy, but the filmmakers deserve credit for seeing their vision through to its logical endpoint. I wonder how deep they got into the filmmaking process before they were sure–really, really sure–no one was going to take it away from them.

Black, Buck and Lee, Emmerich, Frankel, Wells

Frozen (Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, 2013). The most successful animated feature in the traditional Disney mold (fairy tale structure, a bevy of Broadway-esque songs) since the studio’s nineteen-nineties heyday, Frozen is charming enough if a little flat. Like a lot of modern Disney fables, it’s more interesting for the ways it compulsively upends the legacy tropes–the “true love” with a man, the oversimplified villainy–than for the actual merits of what winds up onscreen freed from meta examinations. The songbook provided by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez may have launched a thousand (or more) YouTube videos on the strength of “Let It Go” alone (and the song admittedly is catchy enough to automatically lodge in my brain any time I hear those three words in succession), but it doesn’t stand up to the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman feats from back in the day. Besides, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” is the real winner from the song score. Anyone should be able to hear that. I also don’t fine the human characters as ravishing as some, although I’m prepared to defend the Josh Gad-voiced snowman Olaf as one of the great comic relief characters in Disney’s formidable canon.

August: Osage County (John Wells, 2013). Surely a Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of a play deserves a better cinematic fate than this, even with the original playwright on board to pen the screenplay. I see so sins in condensing the material, nor does that writing suddenly ring false. Instead, it’s the borderline inept directing by John Wells that seems to be the culprit, especially his absolutely inability to develop a consistent tone or to stabilize the wildly varying quality of the performances of his all-star cast. He’s hardly the first filmmaker to display reticence in asking Meryl Streep to temper her worst tendencies (snapping off pieces of scenery like candy cane stalks as the malicious matriarch of the film’s dysfunctional clan), but he could have noticed that Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, and Dermot Mulroney weren’t pulling their weight. The Oscar-nominated performance by Julia Roberts is solid and appealing (despite the “America’s Sweetheart” tag that accompanied her rise to stardom, she’s always been at her best when she’s been able to be a little mean and disagreeable onscreen), but the best work comes from the Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale, playing out a far more honest melodrama around the fringes of the story.

Hope Springs (David Frankel, 2012). Hope Springs makes an admirable attempt to wryly address the sort of late-in-life romantic problems that modern movies would rather do without. Well-meaning as the film may be, it can’t quite decided what it is. Is it a thoughtful consideration of the strain that develops in any relationship, especially one that has endured for years? Is it a light-hearted, semi-satiric romp about late-in-life sexuality? Is it a spiky comedy about a combative couple. Before it’s done, Hope Springs even betrays some of the tired crow’s feet of the modern rom-com. In not settling, the film winds up being a whole lot of nothing. As far as the performances go, Streep has some nice moments but her acting choices are all too obvious much of the time, and Steve Carell simply tries too hard to signal that he’s being serious now as a counselor who tries to help the central couple. Tommy Lee Jones fares best, mostly because he seems to grow more and more incapable of unnatural moments as he ages.

White House Down (Roland Emmerich, 2013). Maybe it’s the film’s happy, unashamed embrace of its own absurdity, but damned if Roland Emmerich’s woefully high concept DieHard-in-the-White-House doesn’t spring to delectable life like a popcorn kernel that’s spent just the right amount of time sizzling in oil. Channing Tatum is the everyman who winds up protecting the U.S. President (Jamie Foxx, thankfully lacking the embedded action hero knowhow that Harrison Ford conveniently possessed in Air Force One) when the White House is the target of fiendishly effective terrorist attack. The movie is enjoyably old fashioned (to the degree that eighties and nineties action movies are in the distant enough past to be termed old fashioned), right down to the obviously telegraphed “secret” bad guys peppered throughout the cast. It’s not high art, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013). In the always surprising land of Marvel movies, the third offering with the armored avenger as central star is notable for the ways in which it’s the unlikeliest elements–those that smack of cheap pandering–that are the unabashed highlights. Accordingly, I suppose, the pieces that should work like gangbusters are drab and muddled. There are cool ideas behind the various action set pieces, but the direction of Shane Black (presumably hired at the behest of Robert Downey, Jr, who worked with him on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) leaves them as largely incoherent mash. And yet the scenes in which a momentarily grounded Tony Stark (Downey) grouchily bonds with a Tennessee youth named Harley (Ty Simpkins) are as witty and winning as anything that’s been issued under the Marvel cinematic banner. Downey’s characterization of Stark is so spot on that even his hints of boredom with the role work for the character, and he does an interesting job with the character’s posttraumatic stress disorder following events in The Avengers. Like an unfortunate number of the Marvel movies, it seems apparent there’s a far better version that could be made with about twenty minutes carved out of it.

Daldry, Eastwood, Moore, Sirk, Soderbergh

Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore, 2012). Much as I can understand how this film turned into a stealth hit–it has the musical liveliness of early Glee combined with the knowing spunk of Bring It On–it’s a fairly clumsy endeavor, with strained jokes and haphazard structure that would almost count as daring anti-narrative if it were done intentionally. It’s also one of those films that has absolutely no idea how college works, not just taking liberties for the sake of the storytelling but completely ignoring any attempt to depict its setting in a way that’s at all plausible. It does have Anna Kendrick, though, and that’s very nearly enough. She’s charming and grounded in the lead role, flashing an effortless star presence that doesn’t compromise her attention to the truth of her characterization.

J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, 2011). A lumpy, desperately old-fashioned biopic from Clint Eastwood, who doesn’t even prosper with the pulpier elements of the story. That’s usually the part in his wheelhouse, showing off the enduring influence of his old collaborator Don Siegel. Oscar-winning Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black wrote the film according to standard issue progressions and leaden conflicts. Given Black’s involvement, many probably expected FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s alleged homosexuality would be a more pressing concern, but it’s simply not that sort of film, less due to skittishness than a general disinterest to dig for anything but the most facile facts. Leonardo DiCaprio is fine in the title role, but neither is he doing anything all that special. Other actors are either stranded with practically nothing to do (Naomi Watts) or obviously out of their depth (Armie Hammer).

Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, 2013). Steven Soderbergh’s string of utterly implausible entertainments continues (and I guess concludes, given the director’s insistence that this will be his last feature-length project) with a beautifully oddball dramatization of the relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), the hunky animal trainer who was the entertainer’s conquest, possession and ultimately adversary when the cast-aside lover sued for palimony. Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese extract deadpan humor out of Liberace’s sunny decadence and the sense of bratty entitlement that came with his celebrity. Douglas is a wonder as Liberace, looking more at ease that he ever has on screen, even if he doesn’t exactly disappear into the role. I never lost sight of the fact that this was Douglas playing Liberace, but I sometimes forgot that none of the mannerisms he flashes actually belong to the actor naturally. There’s also a fantastically funny supporting performance by Rob Lowe as a doped-up plastic surgeon who’s clearly given himself over to the scientific advances of his trade, his face reformed into a rictus of glamor.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry, 2011). Stephen Daldry received Best Director Oscar nomination for each of his first three films, a streak that stopped with this adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, although the expanded Best Picture category made for it, meaning he can still boast of starting his career with nothing but highly honored films. I liked Foer’s novel quite a bit, but Daldry’s film transfers the details while completely missing the spirit of it, becoming a sanctimonious slog. To be fair, nine-year-old Oskar Schell is a probably a character better suited for the page, where his quirks and sideways thinking are more likely to come across as endearing. Realizing the same qualities onscreen is more likely to be aggravating, especially when portrayed by a neophyte actor (Jeopardy! winner Thomas Horn) three significant years too old for the role. Foer grappled with unthinkable tragedy by heightening the confusion in the search for answers. Daldry takes the same story and lathers it with sanctimony.

Lured (Douglas Sirk, 1947). This bizarrely chipper film noir casts Lucille Ball as Sandra, an American working as a taxi dancer in London who’s recruited by Scotland Yard to be an undercover operative in their efforts to catch a serial killer using the classified to find his victims. While Ball was defined by her pratfall daffiness in her hugely success television career, before that she had a way with a sharp wisecrack in her film efforts. That’s certainly the case here, as she brings noteworthy sharpness to her performance. Douglas Sirk provides lively directing, but the plot is ultimately not all that engaging or interesting, even with the involvement of George Sanders, droll as ever as a famous producer smitten with Ball’s ball of fire. The best bits are the digressions, including one very, very strange sequence with Boris Karloff as a deeply unbalanced man who briefly lures Sandra character to his flat overstuffed with creepy belongings.

Burton, Keaton, Preminger, Trank, Vidor

Chronicle (Josh Trank, 2012). Chronicle is good enough to almost–almost–redeem the increasingly tired found footage subgenre. This is in part due to the especially clever use of the footage, drawing it from a variety of sources rather than relying on one dedicated amateur documentarian who keeps the camera running no matter what level of craziness is happening (although the film inevitably must rely on that conceit more than is ideal). Security cameras, police car dashboard cams and other fully believable devices provide all the material that’s stitched together into a narrative. If physics-defying mayhem were happening outside of a upper story window, of course there would be a battalion of observers with tablets and smartphones held up to capture the action, so why not use it? The plot is simple and satisfying, tracing the repercussions when a group of teenagers get superpowers after exploring a mysterious cave out in the woods. First-time director Josh Trank keeps the film moving briskly without sacrificing character development, especially thanks to lead actor Dane DeHaan, who’s already established a noteworthy specialist in young men damaged to the point of anguished fragility.

Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965). Otto Preminger has his devoted disciples, and I’d like to think this is one of their cherished films, if only because its outsized brave oddity makes it a truly unique feature for the times. Based on a 1957 novel by Merriam Modell (using the pen name Evelyn Piper), it has a touch of The Lady Vanishes to it, with protagonist Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) trying to convince the authorities in the English town she’s just moved to that her daughter has gone missing, even though she can’t seem to find anyone able to verify the girl’s existence. Preminger absolutely revels in the film’s richly twisty psychology, joyously indulging in the gamesmanship of his warped narrative. The director favors long tracking shots which makes his momentary flourishes–especially some striking editing in a scene involving swings–all the more striking. Lynley is fine in a role centered on ever-intensifying reactions. Keir Dullea is not very good at all as her brother, but the flatness of his performance winds up working to the film’s advantage. Easily the best performance in the film belongs to Martita Hunt, drolly funny as a somewhat spooky retired teacher who lives on the upper level of the school where the girl was last seen.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1928). This comedy about the educated son of a steamboat captain coming back into his pop’s life is one of the Great Stone Face’s most adored films. The quiet deftness of his direction is evident throughout, and the physicality he brings to the various set pieces is truly extraordinary. The sequence involving a windstorm is a masterpiece all on its own, culminating in a stunt involving a falling house facade that is justifiably Buster Keaton’s most famous single shot. There’s not a lot of subtlety and nuance to the storytelling, as is typical of the era, but Keaton’s command of the emerging vernacular of cinema is thrilling.

Dark Shadows (Tim Burton, 2012). Every once in a while, I get a glimpse of older Tim Burton fare that still holds the sharp snap of originality, and that’s followed by a newly depressed sensation in response to the director’s ceaseless descent into garishly inept reappropriation of well-worn stories. Besides giving Johnny Depp a chance to indulge in the cartoonish overacting that’s become his miserable trademark, Burton’s adaptation of the cult classic horror-flavored soap opera from the nineteen-sixties and early-seventies is such a massive lint ball of half-realized characters and notions that it’s hard to imagine anyone ever thought this thing was coming together in a satisfactory fashion. The convoluted plot was perhaps intended to mirror the hula-hooping lunacy of a soap opera, but it’s instead a complete muddle acted out by overqualified actors struggling to find an iota of personality within their roles. Dark Shadows is about as bland as any film with this much detail packed into it ever could be.

Ruby Gentry (King Vidor, 1952). Jennifer Jones is the title character in this overheated melodrama from King Vidor, a director who definitely knew his way around this sort of material. Ruby is a North Carolina girl from the “wrong side of the tracks.” Despite her humble beginnings–or perhaps motivated by them–Ruby strives for something more, eventually marrying a wealthy man (Karl Malden), earning her the ire of the high society mavens certain she’s just after his money, especially when the man dies in a boating accident. That’s when the plot of social and economic vengeance revs its engine. Games as Jones is in the lead role, the end result is florid without the necessary hint of panache to make it really work.

Duke, Hitchcock, Lang, Lorenz, Rees

Trouble with the Curve (Robert Lorenz, 2012). A longtime Clint Eastwood collaborator–multiple credits as a producer and assistant director–makes his feature directorial debut, and it predictably looks like one of his pal’s stodgier efforts, right down to the venerable actor doing a variation of his Gran Torino gravel-voiced grump complaining about the kids these days. In Trouble with the Curve, Eastwood plays a old baseball scout who’s disparaged by the moneyball adherents in the deluxe offices, even though there’s some things you just can’t tell about a prospect from looking at a computer screen. The film is painfully simplistic, setting up obvious straw-slugger arguments for Eastwood’s character to win as he gradually mends the strained relationship with his daughter (Amy Adams, doing the very best she can with flimsy material). It culminates in a scene involving dueling prospects that’s so detached from reality that anyone who’s seen Sportscenter playing silently in a bar can probably spot its insulting phoniness. The film also includes Justin Timberlake in a central role, which is as bad of an idea as ever.

The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938). The second-to-last film Alfred Hitchcock made in his native U.K. before departing for Hollywood, The Lady Vanishes is a prime example of the great director’s mordant playfulness. On a European train trip, Iris (Margaret Lockwood) reports the disappearance of an old woman, but she has trouble finding anyone else aboard willing to even corroborate the purported victim’s existence. The screenplay, based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins, is ingenious in giving the various characters unique, believable motivations for refusing to back up Iris’s assertions, and the wheel does indeed spin effectively. This is another version of the normal person trapped in confusing, extraordinary circumstances, a basic plotline with which Hitchcock prospered. There’s also a very nice performance by Michael Redgrave as the raffish fellow who antagonizes Iris before becoming her sole ally.

The Return of Frank James (Fritz Lang, 1940). The sequel to 1939’s Jesse James finds Henry Fonda returning to his role as the notorious outlaw’s brother, trying to live a sedate farmer’s life until he finds out what the coward Robert Ford did to his kin. Jackie Cooper has one of his first adult(-ish) roles as a farmhand itching to join in the revenge mission, and it’s also the debut film of Gene Tierney, all flutter and petulance as a fledgling lady reporter. Overall, it’s pretty pedestrian stuff, standard mid-century western fare. The key difference is the presence of Fritz Lang behind the camera (Henry King directed the 1939 film). He can only inject so much personality into it, but it is fascinating to see hints of his unique eye and preference for abstract, moody lighting creep into the film. It’s not a vital work, but it’s indicative of how challenging it was for him to fit into the Hollywood machine.

Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011). When Pariah debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, I remember a few writers lamenting that its superficial similarities–let’s reinforce that by noting they’re extremely superficial–to 2009’s fest sensation Precious would cause this far superior effort to be unfairly overlooked. Turn out they couldn’t have been more right. The debut feature from writer-director Dee Rees (expanded from a short film from four years earlier) is wise, insightful, empathetic, honest and emotional sound. So it’s basically everything that Precious wasn’t. The film features a deeply appealing performance by Adepero Oduye as Alike, a young African-American woman coming to terms with her own identity, a process further challenged by the pressures of her demanding family, particular her mother (Kim Wayans), who seethes with dissatisfaction over an upscale life that’s simply not controlled and refined enough. In particular, Alike is coming to terms with her own sexuality–specifically, an attraction to other women–and the process is depicted in a tender, thoughtful way. The movie is tough-minded, but not unkind or manipulative. It’s commitment to telling Alike’s story with the dignity of truth is resolute.

A Rage in Harlem (Bill Duke, 1991). Based on a 1957 novel by Chester Himes, A Rage in Harlem begins with a bloody bayou shootout and progresses to the New York neighborhood of the title, as a flurry of characters try to get their hands on the spoils of that trading of bullets, a hefty cache of gold. The necessary femme fatale is played by Robin Givens, then very famous due to her intensely troubled marriage to miscreant boxer Mike Tyson. Givens may have been handy for the movie poster, but her acting was always middling at best, and she goes a long way toward blunting the film’s impact. And it really needs a strong, enticing central performance to help smooth out the tangles of the plot (or at least make the muddle easier to forgive). There’s a nice character turn by Forest Whitaker as a nebbish who falls under the sway of Givens’s fleeing moll, but it’s not enough to overcome the film’s prevailing clumsiness, including the somewhat confused tone of Bill Duke’s directing.