Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)

I was four years old at the start of the 1960s, in high school by 1970, so it's no surprise that the movies I saw then remain with me like no others. In the early '60s, pop culture was a generally comforting mix of innocent '50s fluff and the kind of flat-footed irony expressed by Mad magazine's brand of furshlugginer social satire; you could still find bug-eyed monsters in a Saturday matinee and a self-consciously imaginary surf's-up vacation at the drive-in--even though a Cold War nervous condition made the cameraman's hand shake a little. The old pros of Hollywood, led by Bette Davis, could be spotted as crazy ladies cackling in haunted houses à la What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, while the French New Wave was breaking on U.S. shores, encouraging both the nascent indie film culture and Hollywood itself to join the In Crowd.

And just as we rounded the final turn of the decade came 2001, which made a promise about the movies--that they contained their own version of infinity, something that really lasts--a promise that I think Kubrick helped keep, at least a little. But back then, when I was thirteen, it was simply a Happening, cooler than anything I'd ever seen, my first techno-vision, a dream about gadgets. I began to recognize that there'd always be two kinds of movies for me: the ones that build an almost unconscious web of memories, and sudden nuclear events that blasted everything, forcing us to start all over.

I'll admit I still feel cozier with memories than Ground Zero. Both in the movies--usually at the drive-in--and on TV, I'd watch blurry little pictures that seemed to become "shadowy recollections" even as I sat in front of them. Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake Is Missing falls under this category, a strange, sleepy psycho-thriller with (for me, at least) two quintessential '60s faces: Carol Lynley's and Keir Dullea's, both of them so bland and smooth as children's that even their panic and madness seems like a wistful reflection. The black and white cinematography, the sighing, woodwind-infused soundtrack, the false reassurance of Laurence Olivier as a policeman--and most of all the plot, the Vanishing Person mystery--here, a child that no one even admits exists; all of it floats around in one's head like a recent dream, fading the more you try to remember it.

It is a movie about absence: Bunny is missing, and her mother is the prime suspect--and what she is suspected of is inventing Bunny--and where all this goes I'll let you see. I admit I'm not entirely happy with the ending, when it finally decides to become a thriller; but until the (admittedly, still weird) climax, the real pleasure of Bunny Lake Is Missing is the dark fairy tale situation, Bunny the invisible changeling, with Keir Dullea--let's not forget that he would play 2001's Dave Bowman in just a couple of years--himself looking like a child, his little smile a bit flat, not quite reassuring.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Intermission (2003)

All right: You've long given yourself permission to be sick and tired of serio-comic-tragic movies built of intricately interwoven lives/plots. But before you leave that busy little corner of cinema for good, watch Intermission, an Irish film that draws in Cillian Murphy, Colin Farrell, Kelly MacDonald, a mustachioed Shirley Henderson, and the always-dependable Colm Meaney*--plus many more--into a kidnap-romance-heist-farce that also manages to be a movie about waiting for one's life to resume--or resolve itself.

Given the strangeness of the characters and the complexities of their relationships and schemes, Intermission could've easily fallen into terminal Irish whimsicality. But between its U2-tinged soundtrack--with a nice turn by Farrell on "I Fought the Law"--and the nastiness of even some of the local children, the movie never gets too cute. Even as a love story--which it mostly is--Intermission knows that love can stink, but also that most of us are ready to give up everything (even love itself, if you know what I mean) to take that leap into another's arms.

The cast helps in this effort enormously, never winking at the camera, always sprinting full-tilt along the whoopsy-daisy plot--of which there's enough for three or four pictures, but Intermission doesn't feel bloated or forced. It just keeps its hands on the wheel, stubbornly refusing advice, taking the corners a bit too fast--but that's where the fun is.

*Almost fifteen years before Juno, Meaney delights in Stephen Frears' The Snapper, in which he plays a clueless Da who has to learn how to be a good father to his pregnant daughter.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961)

In his cheerfully titled 1929 book, Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud points out the three sources of human suffering: the world itself, with its storms and earthquakes, the dangers of climate and geology; our own bodies, which--despite our best efforts (he tells us we have become a "prosthetic God," capable of artificially repairing bodily damage)--will one day let us down--and along the way give us great grief; and the most significant (and unfortunately "least regulated") source of pain, our relationships with each other. He concludes that "the universe is opposed to the program of the Pleasure Principle"--that is, our urge to be happy is constantly thwarted by the fact that we are alive.

In Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda relieves Cleo of one of those sources of pain: the world itself, which in this film is Paris, stripped of all pain, glowing with early-'60s, black-and-white beauty. Cleo is awaiting the results of a cancer biopsy, and spends her two hours wandering through the city, her realtionships, and her thoughts. Varda makes a meditative film that--because it is a "feminine" meditation--is both frank and wistful, as honest as it is uncertain. In Varda's hands, the French New Wave is almost serene, shaped by the urge to understand oneself and one's place in a painful life.

It's easy to fall in love with Varda's films: If you're a woman, she treats you with understanding and respect; and if you're a man, she allows a glimpse into that secret garden at whose gate we so often fumble, the flowers at our fingertips but untouched without help. And Varda provides more than a hint; it's as though I keep hearing her murmur, "You're getting warmer," as I follow Cleo from 5 to 7 in a dream that's more wish-fulfillment than I could've managed on my own.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)

Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (1997) made people uneasy; perhaps it was his determination to make a film about the Holocaust that forced out some laughs--almost unbearable, the choking feeling of laughing and weeping at the same time. It was a movie you did not so much watch as drowned in--a cinematic waterboarding. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas also tries to see that horror from an oblivious child's point of view--but it does not dare to laugh; instead, it allows the Holocaust to unfold slowly before the (German) child's eyes, an intriguing puzzle the boy never quite solves.

Along the way, however, we are given a view of the Final Solution as a family concern, both Nazi and Jewish--and, like Benigni's picture, the decision to make genocide a personal matter takes Schindler's List one step farther, away from mass extinction to the death of individuals--millions, eventually; but in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas they die one at a time, and we are asked to know them first, and to understand what it means to be one person in the midst of the twentieth century's defining moment of shame and loss. Understand that this is a movie about the worst we can do to one another--but it is touched by the hands of parents, whose love and helplessness tell us as much about the concentration camps as we can take while still reassuring ourselves we're just watching a movie.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Breakdown (1997)

Director Jonathan (Terminator 3) Mostow does a pretty fair Hitchcock impression with Breakdown, its plot improbabilities forgivable in light of the tension he creates. And he's lucky to have Kurt Russell as the hapless-hubby good guy--and maybe even more so to have the immortal J.T. Walsh as his villain. Imagine The Vanishing without any psychology, just suspense, in a desert landscape where everybody is either fly-specked-clueless or in on the shenanigans.

Russell trusts Walsh with his wife (Kathlenn Quinlan, another welcome face)--and thanks for small errors: Russell's search for the missing Quinlan, and the weirdo motives for her disappearance, make for a final act that strains credulity--but again, those B-actors (and I mean that as a compliment) know what to do with extreme material: let it be and ride--which Kurt, who's always looked like a surfer, is particularly good at (he's the only reason to watch Grindhouse), and he and his co-stars stick with the plot and deliver a popcorn-good time.