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.

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