Saturday, December 12, 2015

Favorites of 2015: Hollywood and other movies

Charles Ruggles and Jeanette MacDonald in One Hour With You (1932),
one of my favorite Pre-Code Hollywood movies of 2015 (see below)
Contemporary Hollywood

For us 2015 was the year of the classic films of Ernst Lubitsch and Pre-Code Hollywood, and so only one contemporary Hollywood film managed to squeeze onto our list of favorites:

Inside Out poster

Inside Out (2015; story by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen, directed by Docter)

Inside Out takes us inside the head of 11-year-old Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), where we meet her emotions: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Anger (voiced by Lewis Black), Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kahling), Fear (voiced by Bill Hader), and Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith). Joy is the clear leader of the group—until Riley's parents decide to move from Minnesota to San Francisco (they must be multi-millionaires). Things begin to go wrong: their belongings don't arrive, Riley cries in front of the class at her new school, and she slips and falls during a tryout for a hockey team. Sadness starts wreaking havoc, and Joy—in the company of Riley's almost-forgotten imaginary playmate, Bing Bong (voiced by Richard Kind)—must delve deep into Riley's mind to recover her happy core memories before it's too late. Of course, this leaves the other emotions in control...

The personification of Riley's emotions is a very clever conceit, even if on reflection there seem to be a few missing: Love, for example, and Envy.* But the film works so well thanks to its moving story (despite triggering a cascade of disasters, Sadness, it turns out, has an essential role to play) and the excellent performances of its vocal cast, especially Poehler and Smith.

The concept also has a built-in potential for sequels. I foresee Inside High-School Riley, Riley Tries to Pick an Undergraduate Major, Riley Works Crappy Jobs While Dating Undeserving Men, and Riley Finally Appreciates What Her Parents Went Through. Genius.

Pre-Code Hollywood

Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, and Miriam Hopkins in Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Trouble in Paradise (1932; written by Ernst Lubitsch and Samson Raphaelson, directed by Lubitsch)

I wrote in "The Lubitsch Touch": "When people speak of the 'Lubitsch Touch,' this is the kind of film they have in mind. Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins portray expert thieves masquerading as aristocrats, who find each other's duplicity romantically and professionally irresistible. Kay Francis plays a French parfumier who is their intended next victim, until Marshall discovers that she's already being her accountant. His chivalrous feelings soon begin to develop into something more; can he steal from a woman he loves? Charles Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton provide their usually brilliant comic support. Lubitsch himself later wrote that 'As for pure style, I think I have done nothing better or as good as Trouble in Paradise.' It's tempting to agree with him; this is one of the greatest classic Hollywood comedies."

One Hour With You (1932; written by Samson Raphaelson, directed by Ernst Lubitsch):

Maurice Chevalier (yes, and he's charming) is a Parisian doctor, Andre, and Jeanette MacDonald (yes, and she displays an unsuspected comic flair) is his wife Colette. Their marriage is happy until Colette's married friend Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin) makes a play for Andre, who, despite his passionate love for Colette, is sorely tempted:

The couple's predatory friend Adolph (Charles Ruggles) decides that he will take this opportunity to offer consolation to the unhappy Colette. In her hurt and anger she seems willing to entertain his suggestion...but has Andre actually been unfaithful after all?

As I wrote in "The Lubitsch Touch": "One Hour With You plays up its own theatricality, as characters directly address the camera and sometimes speak, as well as sing, in rhyme. I think it's the best of Lubitsch's Pre-Code musicals, in part because there are real emotional dilemmas at its heart."

Baby Face poster

Baby Face (1933, screenplay by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola, directed by Alfred E. Green)

In the notorious Baby Face, a hard-bitten Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way from the street-level personnel office of the Gotham Trust Bank floor by floor to the penthouse apartment of its president, George Brent. In a famous series of tracking shots, the camera actually follows her progress up the side of the building. (Among her early stepping-stones is a young John Wayne; also notable is Stanwyck's loyalty to and friendship with her black maid Theresa Harris.)

It's mind-boggling that in any era Hollywood could produce a movie with a heroine this amoral. And throughout it all, we are pulling for Stanwyck to get what she wants. Just ignore the obviously tacked-on ending intended to placate the censors. (If you'd like to see movies in which the heroine doesn't end up either punished with death, or as a loyal, monogamous wife, see Design for Living, Red-Headed Woman, or Too Many Husbands.)


Sebastião Salgado in The Salt of the Earth
The Salt of the Earth (2014; directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado)

Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado spent much of his life travelling around the world seeking out places where people faced man-made disasters: forced migration, famine, brutal working conditions, burning oil fields, civil war. The very first photograph we see in The Salt of the Earth is at first hard to comprehend, but gradually resolves into an image of thousands of Brazilian gold miners in a huge open pit at the Serra Pelada mine. In an utterly blasted landscape, hundreds of mud-coated miners are carrying ore on their backs up rickety wooden ladders to the top of the pit. It's a hellish scene, the first of many shown in the film, which displays dozens of examples of Salgado's work. His photographs are gorgeous, mind-boggling, and horrifying—often all at the same time. A warning: some of the images are very disturbing, particularly those he took in the Congo and Rwanda during the mass slaughter of the mid-1990s.

The documentary either doesn't address, or addresses only glancingly, some key issues raised by Salgado's life and photographs. First is that his son Juliano hardly saw his father while he was growing up, because of Sebastião's constant travel; he only gets to know him as an adult by joining him on his photography excursions. The second is the moral position of the photographer who records mass-scale human misery while standing apart from it as an observer. The third is the aestheticization of horror: Salgado's black-and-white photographs are stunning, even when they portray almost unimaginably terrible subjects. And finally, although Salgado himself comes to despair of humanity's future, the film ends on a note of hope that I think isn't really justified (although I was grateful for a break from disaster).

But if the film is at times too careful, or too utopian, or entirely silent in its approach to these issues, Salgado's photographs themselves are unforgettable.

Finding Vivian Maier (2013; directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel)

Vivian Maier photograph
A Vivian Maier photograph (detail)
At a storage space auction in 2007, John Maloof bid on some boxes of photographic negatives and prints. When Maloof began to examine the photographs more closely, he was immediately struck by the way that they combined the immediacy and spontaneity of street photography with the careful framing and close attention to contrasts of light and shade of art photography. He began to scan and post the images to his Flickr account and blog.

As Maloof eventually discovered, the pictures had been taken by an eccentric Chicago nanny named Vivian Maier who (as it turned out later) died in 2009. Maier had lived in the area for decades, and over the years had taken hundreds of thousands of photographs on her daily walks with the children in her care. Finding Vivian Maier tells the fascinating and wildly improbable story of Maloof's discovery of her work, his attempts to trace her history, and her posthumous rise to fame. And it is filled with Maier's striking and sometimes unsettling photographs. See it while you can; an (in my view baseless) copyright lawsuit is proceeding which may determine whether Maloof is able to continue to make Maier's work available.

Other Favorites of 2015:
Opera and other music
Classic and contemporary Bollywood

* The emotional typology used in the film was developed by Paul Ekman, who believes that emotions are fleeting and thus love is not an emotion.

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