Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The Escapees (1981)

French director Jean Rollin, considered an auteur by some, and a schlockmeister by others, was often constrained by the studio system, and given bugger all to make movies with. From what I understand, one particular studio gave him a job, and insisted this one was to be normal. No vampires, lesbian or otherwise, and keep it realistic, with none of that high-falutin' art stuff. However did Jean manage? We'll see as we discuss 1981's The Escapees...

Michelle and Marie are two unstable young women, newly escaped from a mental hospital. Michelle is a rebellious 'troublemaker', while Marie is shy to the point of paralysis, and follows Michelle only so she won't be lonely. Together, these reluctant partners find themselves watching a travelling show, falling in with pickpockets, visiting lurid nightclubs, and more, all the way seeking freedom from the old life that kept them shackled...

The Escapees is an interesting movie in some ways, and a little slow moving. It's a nice exploration that borders on melodrama at times, but manages to keep interest throughout, despite being a bit too long.

The characters are quite well written. Michelle is a bitch from the get-go, with absolutely zero interest in being Marie's carer or friend, but due to the shy yet determined girl's insistence, and circumstances beyond their control, Michelle begins to soften up and let Marie in. Marie meanwhile is sensitive and enigmatic,with an implied past that is tragic, and has a lot of humanity. It's sweet seeing her really open up at the ice skating rink.

Their connection becomes an interesting one by the end, and feels earned, save for the obligatory lesbian angle, which comes a little out of nowhere. At least show how deep their connection is, even if it does verge on the ridiculous that they've gone from heterosexual strangers to pashing life partners in the span of two days.

The remainder of the cast has some interesting people, big and little. Many of them are down on their luck, or caught in bad situations, like the sadness present with the carnival operator, and what he and his wife must do to keep afloat. There's also a young pickpocket Sophie, who's a bit sneaky and abrasive, but endearingly loyal. I wasn't a fan of the libertines in the last act though.

Where the movie really makes a misstep for me is the climax. It takes such a sudden detour into violence, feels a bit forced, and the outcome is just plain depressing, on all angles! It really makes you pissed off! These poor girls have been through so much, why couldn't they just get to go to the Leeward islands, and party it up on a calm beach for the rest of their lives? Instead it's just continued misery, imprisonment, or death for all of them.

Another adverse effect the ending has is entirely justifying the supposedly evil mental hospital. So often we see movies about how mental patients are really just misunderstood folks who are shackled by a blind and cruel system, and certainly that is true some of the time, but when the movie ends by showing the pair killing several people and having a shootout with the police, before attempting double suicide, it entirely ruins that message, and makes you wish they were still locked up, for their own good!

The Escapees represents one of Jean Rollin's greater diversions from his regular output, but also unmistakeably bears his fingerprints. The film is set entirely in the real world, with no supernatural aspects, and a 'juvenile girls' drama. The tone is also more grounded than dreamlike. There are familiar locations, rusted and forgotten. Female friendship is still a big element, and is handled with his usual maturity. The film's best scene is the ice rink setpiece, which looks gorgeous, and sheds great light on Marie's character. Even those who don't like this film (of which there are many) consider this to be a crowning moment for the movie.

The film is also known as The Dawns of the Early Morning, which is certainly poetic, but also a touch long, and doesn't have much to do with the movie. The Escapees (or The Runaways) may be a bit bland, but it's direct and honest.

Laurence Dubas and Christiane Coppé are nice leads, who each bring something different to the table. Dubas is loud and abrasive, sometimes annoyingly so, but manages to balance things well, while Coppé gives a more understated and subtle performance, without coming off as wooden or emotionless. Also in the cast are Marianne Valiot as the duo's ill-fated friend, and a brief appearance by Rollin mainstay Brigitte Lahaie, among others.

The direction is easily the best thing about The Escapees, with Rollin bringing his usual A-game here. His eye for locations is fantastic, as are the way he shoots them. There are many striking images, with the ice skating in particular being filmed with such talent. Even the end, as frustrating as it is, still gives us a great final shot.

Regular composer Philippe D'Aram does another fine job here. The score is subtle, and the film is quite silent in many places, but it's really nice when it plays, and fits the tone perfectly, and helps create it in some scenes.

The Escapees isn't for everyone, and there is a reason it ranks lowest on Jean Rollin's filmography. A grounded take on 'teen' drama just isn't as interesting to those who prefer vampires, ghosts, and goblins. But for all its faults I still think it's a pretty good film, even if I normally steer clear from genres like this...

Night of the Hunted (1980)

Robert is a regular young man out for a night drive when he sees a scared woman out in the dark, and invites her in. Unbeknownst to him, another woman was with her, and is soon recaptured by some mysterious orderlies. Robert tries to figure out where this woman is from, but she's suffering from a strange form of amnesia, and can't retain any information. They develop a bond, but she says she'll forget even that as soon as she leaves the room. This is proven when she's kidnapped again, and taken to a secret hospital. Robert tracks her down and intends to rescue her, but will she remember him?...

Night of the Hunted is one of French auteur Jean Rollin's more unique films. Set apart from the classical Gothic trappings of his past outings, and with no vampires in sight, the story that unfolds here is an interesting one.

The film gets off to a quick start, immediately introducing its characters, and setting up the overall mystery. The story is basic enough for this to work, but while it is a low-key story it never feels underwritten.

There's a lot of ambiguity in the action. The head of the clinic claims an environmental accident is to blame for these peoples' condition, and he is only trying to help. But if that's the case why is his clinic such a draconian place, with guns and everything (to say nothing of their maniacal staff!). Good doctors don't tend to use lethal force against patients, no matter how far gone. Robert to his credit is having none of this. The doctor says he'll explain everything, sure that once Robert knows everything he will understand and leave them alone. Yet once he's told the truth, Robert's immediate reaction is to brand them ruthless killers who probably caused the accident in the first place! Good on ya, mate!

The themes here range from the obvious (don't screw with the environment or else you'll create psychotic zombies, like in The Grapes of Death), to the more intriguing and subtle, like the power of memories, and what measure a human is without them. While the movie's story is scientific, there's an almost supernatural  of events, such as the blowing wind in one scene.

Female kinship is also explored here, in the relationship between the mystery woman Elizabeth and Veronique, and the other women she befriends at the clinic. They manage to make some deep connections, despite their crippling circumstances.

The tone in Night of the Hunted is grim and violent, but I also noticed a strong undercurrent of sadness. This is quite a mature film, and it conveys what it wants in an effective way, without ever being too much either way.

The ending is a point which might satisfy some and disappoint others. In some ways I liked it. There is a great final shot, and a sense of closure. While it's not a happy ending by any definition, it's also not entirely sad, if that makes any sense. The disappointing part comes from the total lack of any other resolution. We don't need to see what caused this accident, or some kind of grand happy go lucky cure, but I was hoping for some punishment for the villains. Instead they all get off scot free.

While this is a haunting film in many ways, it can also be unintentionally hilarious. This is most evident in the sex scenes. Robert has only known this mystery woman 5 minutes, and she's clearly a disoriented amnesiac, but that doesn't stop them from immediately having sex, and she loudly declares that not only is this the best sex she's ever had, but it's so good she'll always remember him, despite her ongoing amnesia.

The performances in Night of the Hunted are interesting. While at first glance the prospect of playing a constantly naked person with no personality, emotions, or memory would be easy, considering some of the cast were former porn stars, but they manage to get across something special, achieving a certain kind of emptiness that really sells their roles. Brigitte Lahaie delivers a great performance, and due to her you care about her character, even if she's barely there. Alain Duclos is a good human protagonist, likeable and proactive. Bernard Papineau makes for a good villain, whose motives are potentially up for debate (though I never trusted him).

The effects here are good, with some neat gore. It can look a little fake in some scenes, but manages to otherwise impress. The music meanwhile is effective in places, though also a little laugh-inducing when it gets to the choral bits.

Rollin's direction here is very good, shooting the confined spaces of the clinic well. Many describe the movie as having a postmodernist look to it, with the strange and oppressive architecture. Even the streets of Paris are made to look cold and forbidding. The looming urban skyscraper is seen through withered branches, as if it's an old castle ruin. The ending features a neat location, with an interesting and authentic clash of old world and the new. The use of colour is wonderful too, with red mixing with white, purple and yellow, and the sky and city lights go together really well. For that we can presumably thank the people of Paris rather than Rollin.

Night of the Hunted is a violent, glum, and slow-paced watch, and not for everyone, but if you like those things, or are willing to tolerate them for a director you like, this is definitely recommended. It's a poetic and almost nightmarish odyssey...

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Sabirni Centar-The Meeting Point (1989)

Professor Miša is an elderly archaeologist examining some ancient ruins, when a hidden chamber is uncovered. He immediately realises the site's importance, but the strain of the whole endeavour leads to his sudden death. As his callous family moves on, arranging a funeral to coincide with a garrulous wedding, and tearing at each-other for their inheritance, Miša awakes in an ethereal location-The meeting place of the dead. Here are the spirits of all those he knew in life, and he learns about the deeds of the living that have prevented them from moving on to the afterlife...

Sabirni Centar (The Meeting Point) is a fascinating Serbian film. It's a mix of genres, from fantasy, to drama, and comedy. These all mix seamlessly, with the tone never feeling awkward. We can go from goofy in one scene, to solemn in the next,   Some have described it as a Magical Realism film, and while I'm not sure I agree (only because that's a very fiddly term), I can definitely see elements of that sub-genre at play here.

The film presents an effective commentary on human culture, shining a light on the pettiness, greed, and other 'deadly sins' that communities can commit, whether intentionally or not, and the impact they can have. Here the dead cannot find peace due to the actions of the living.

The film does a good job showing   but it's also good at making them fun to watch. If they were genuinely nasty to the core, the film could be a slog, but they're just the right kind of bad that you can have a good chuckle at.  Another thing Sabirni Centar does is show off the Serbian people's partying side/spirit. Where else can you fire a gun up in the air and go "Musica!"?

There's a strong cast of characters here. At first there are a lot of people to remember, and who is who left me scratching my head at times, but you quickly get the hang of everyone and who's related to what. You have sympathetic heroes, craven relations and townsfolk (none of whom are presented as 1-dimensionally evil), and restless but wise spirits.

The plot is a well-paced one, with some twists and turns, a few surprises, and some great concepts. I did expect Miša to do a bit more when he returned to life though. I was expecting there to be a grand adventure to be had, maybe uncovering the secret to the mysterious portal, or keeping it out of the hands of diabolical villains, but it's more low-key than that, with Miša simply returning to give his family and 'friends' a chewing out for their selfish and greedy behaviour, before abruptly dropping dead. I'm generally happy with this direction the plot goes, but I guess I just wish the old guy got the chance to do a bit more.

I also found the spirits' journey to Earth to be a little disappointing. It's great stuff, but feels almost like an afterthought. A very elaborate afterthought, mind you. While Miša just walks through a dark passage and we cut to him back in the land of the living, the others go through a variety of crazy scenes along the way. These include a great mythological gag, which spoke of the intelligent humour on display here. There are also many other historical moments. My only problem is that this section does go on a bit long, and by the time the spirits reach the world of the living, there's only 15 minutes left. They do enough when they get there, and there are some funny and quirky moments, but I did wish there could've been more, and perhaps a little sooner.

While some of what came before may have been a little hurried, the ending itself is fantastic. The loose ends are wrapped up, and everyone gets together back in the meeting place for a calm but grand final scene.

The film's comedy comes from a few places. There are some comic relief characters, like the three clumsy gravediggers(/robbers), but many other characters elicit laughs too, and the curious spirits returning to the land of the living have a lot of amusing moments too. There's slapstick here, wordplay, and more.

The cast do neat jobs, with various different kinds of performances. Rade Marković is a good lead, and while he may look like a frazzled Albert Einstein here, he gets across the drama of the story well, while also having his share of amusing moments. Anica Dobra is beautiful as Miša's deceased wife. Longtime Yugoslav actor Danilo 'Bata' Stojković has a funny role as the leech-enthused town doctor, Taško Načić is reliably quirky as the [town mayor], and Goran Daničić is good as a [gung-ho] soldier ghost. There are many more, and no bad performances as far as I could see.

The direction by Goran Marković is superb! Sabirni Centar always looks good. I liked a lot of little touches, like how it used empty spaces, filling them up as the camera pans around. The film also does a subtle but cool effect when a lot of the spirits move. Instead of walking, they glide. It's not a big effect, which makes it very nice to see. And lastly, I thought the colour of the many black funeral suits contrasts very well with the pale yellow of the meeting place.

The locations are just as gorgeous. The majority of the film is shot in Yugoslavia, with the earthly ruins being filmed in Gamzigrad while the scenes at the meeting place were filmed all the way in Tunisia. It's not just the locations that amaze too, but the vistas, namely one at the end, which captures the twilight clouds in such a stunning way.

The score in Sabirni Centar is great. We've got spooky and ominous tracks, comedic ones that really fit the mood, as well as solemn and beautiful pieces, namely the song at the end that plays the movie out. This is really something special, and composer Zoran Simjanović should be proud.

Sabirni Centar is one of the best Serbian movies I've seen, and well worth checking out. It's hard to find with English subtitles, but the resourceful will be rewarded, I'm sure. It might make you think, and even if it doesn't, it'll make you laugh anyway...

The Dog Who Loved Trains (1977)

Director Goran Vljsnijnjic (or Višnjić if I spell it properly*) is responsible for many diverse kinds of drama films in the Serbian region, before and after the fall of Yugoslavia. He made realistic and sweet (but still somewhat heavy) movies, like Illusive Summer 69, and Tango Argentino. Alternatively, Balkan Cabaret is the worst tourist ad imaginable, and after reading a plot description of the deceptively titled The Optimists, I don't think I can ever smile again. The Dog Who Loved Trains is an earlier effort from him, and really spotlights both the good and bad in his filmography...

*Or Paskaljević if I remember his name correctly. So many Gorans!

Mika is a female convict recently escaped from a transport bus. After briefly hitching up with travelling with western carnival operator Rodoljub, she runs off once again, this time with a young boy in search for his lost dog. Together they have many exciting and scary encounters, before their search comes to a dramatic conclusion...

The Dog Who Loved Trains gets off to a strong start. It introduces us to all three main characters in a quick and economical way. We understand their personalities, and they are distinct people with clear goals. The movie continues in a good way, feeling like a down to earth exploration of life on the ground level of 1970 Yugoslavia. It may not be the fanciest place in the world, but it comes across as nice and familial.

Where the move began to disappointment me was halfway through, when it veered wildly off course and became a melodrama. The first misstep for me was with Kauboj, whose personality suddenly changes, leading to his exclusion from the rest of the film. From here on the film becomes more of a double act, between this older woman and young man. I found the story got less interesting as it progressed, and the final act really pissed me off!

It's in the last 20 minutes when The Dog Who Loved Trains completely loses sight of any happiness. It becomes a joyless affair full of rape, death, and misery, culminating in a total downer ending! The only good news is that the dog is at least found (if only by the viewer). I understood what the film's first half was trying to be, but the second completely lost me. It just felt like misery for misery's sake.

Onto the characters. Mika is a reasonably likeable heroine. Despite being a brusque convict, she's never a bitch, and she gradually becomes sympathetic (well, slightly). At the start (after an amusing prison transport sequence), she has another runaway convict tagging along, but she was quickly thrown to the side, which I thought a shame. The movie has a lot of potential double acts it ignores.

Kauboj, or Kovboj   starts out as a good guy, salt of the earth and trying to make a living out of a niche but effective trade. This is until for no reason he decides to betray his new friend and coworker, completely screwing her over and depriving himself of some much needed help. It feels like the writer just ran out of ideas for him, so wrote the guy out as soon as he could.

The young Mladić isn't as distinctive as the other two leads, nor does he have the biggest story, though he has the greatest connection with the title. His search for his dog endears him, even if it's been so long already with no success. The movie seems to forget he started the movie with a girlfriend though, and tries pairing him off with Mika.

The cast do good jobs. Svetlana Bojković is an effective lead, doing the most to carry the film. Velimir 'Bata' Živojinović is good when he appears, and is missed later on. Irfan Mensur is decent, even if he doesn't get as much meat to chew on as the other leads, while Danilo 'Bata' Stojković has a nice but all too brief role as Mika's father.

The score is an eclectic mix of ethnic music, foreign instrumental tunes, and synthesiser heavy tracks, reminiscent of the 80s (impressively so given how it predates the decade). The ambient sounds of trains going by often permeates the action, and gives a neat feel.

The Dog Who Loved Trains is worth watching for those with an interest in Yugoslavian cinema. If you don't mind slightly depressing things, you'll love it, and if you prefer more lighthearted fare, you'll get a little here, though not as much cute dogs as there should have been!...

Saturday, September 25, 2021

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971)

Yugoslavian director Dušan Makavejev was always an unconventional artist, making movies that challenged his audience, and often showed the unglamorous sides of society, trying to depict true life. He often did this in incredibly filthy ways, and many of his movies were banned for decades. Typically they are loved by snobby critics, despite containing everything they hate about 'lowbrow' films. His 1971 effort W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism was considered so transgressive for a number of reasons that the Yugoslavian government banned the film and exiled its director.

Milena is an ardent communist, preaching her radical ideas of sex to everyone around her. One day sees the arrival of a champion ice skater from the Soviet Union, and she is instantly fascinated, and becomes determined to bring him to her way of thinking...

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism is a collage of many disparate elements, all working together for the one common goal-The importance of sex and fighting repression. The main subject is fascinating and discredited psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. A student of Freud, a staunch anti-fascist, and by all accounts a talented doctor until he went a little of the deep end in his later years, some might say. He believed sex was a vital force of the universe, and became convinced of the existence of Orgone, an orgasmic universal energy.

Reich set up a colony in a rural American town, and was an eccentric figure, liked by some, but distrusted by others. Some thought he was a depraved pervert, others thought he was a communist, and this all ignited when there were attacks by a mob, and an FBI raid, leading to Reich's arrest and the seizure and destruction of all his works. It's a gripping story, and really makes you think! On one hand Reich's theories sound laughable and insane, like a typical crackpot. But on the other hand, the severity in which the government cracked down on him was unheard of, and unacceptable. To bust all of his property, burn his books, and arrest him, just because he was a crackpot is antithetical to what America stands for. He may have loony, but who knows. Bread mold did turn out to be medicine after all. It is also telling of the government's priorities when they do nothing about the rampant snake oil sold in the country, but destroyed Reich's work. My opinion is that not that there was a shadowy conspiracy determined to hide the 'truth of universal harmony through orgasms', but rather they were just keen to clamp down on sexual freedom and expression, which is a big theme of this film. God knows they weren't doing it because they had anyone's best interests at heart.

This works well as a documentary, though it never has a total conclusion of his story, and a few details of Reich's life that would've been interesting to hear never come up. There are positives and negatives that could've painted a bigger picture. I only know about them due to my own research.

This documentary takes up about a third of the film, while the rest presents a fictional tale of Yugoslavian politics, seen through a comedic lens, with a few shocking twists. The story of Milena has a flippant tone, and many amusing moments, namely her big speech to the masses. The ending is also bizarre, and provides the film with one of its most lasting images.

The remainder of the film is all over the place, showing various events and people in present day America, from interviews with doctors, pornographers, and artists, to scenes of singer and beatnik Tuli Kupferberg running around New York dressed as a crazy soldier. These were definitely my least favourite sections. That whole hippy/art/sex scene just really irks me, in a lot of ways. I roll my eyes at all of them.

Mysteries of the Organism definitely has a unique structure, and is like little else. It's an experimental affair, but one that is also still watchable. Though I did feel the structure was too random at times, flitting between as many as three stories in 1 minute, often showing something so brief or tangential that it felt pointless, [and didn't add anything].

Now, the big question is-Did I actually like this movie? I may have found it interesting, but is it enjoyable, or a good movie to me? My reaction is somewhere in the middle. I enjoyed it, and it is a good movie, though it's definitely not for everyone. Some might be put off by its structure, or its frank sexuality (and I for one could've done without seeing hairy 1970s dudes naked!), and I personally feel the movie is flawed. There are whole scenes or sections I thought could have been easily excised, and my personal preference would've been if the film had've just been half documentary on Reich, half the story of Milena,

Milena's roommate is amusing, as well as nice on the eyes, parading around buck naked in every scene, with what appears to be a crotch rug. She's often having sex, embodying Milena's values physically while she espouses them through words. Soviet ice skater Vladimir Ilyich is a bit of a stuck up knob, which Milena intends to change. He speaks positively of Yugoslavia and its decision to forge its own path away from the Soviet Union, though in a very paternalistic way. 'We respect you. Which is why we know you'll eventually agree that our way is best.' Speak for yourself, Russkie!

As a documentary, the number of actors per se in this movie is fairly low. The interview subjects range from interesting, to quirky, to annoying. The rarity of interviews with some of these people really makes this a somewhat important resource. The actual actors are all in the Milena story, and is comprised of some Yugoslav regulars, namely Milena Dravić. She is spunky and has a great sense of humour, and its telling of her acting skills that in a movie like this she never needs to get her kit off in order to be memorable.

Musically there is a lot to intrigue here. There are traditional Yugoslavian melodies, communist songs, hymns, and even experimental choices with a couple of songs by hippy protest band The Fugs. Some of them are nice, or at least culturally interesting to listen to, while others are annoying. I confess to not being a fan of The Fugs or Kupferberg's singing voice at all (although admittedly the lyrics to Kill for Peace got a chuckle out of me).

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism has built up quite a cult following over the years, even getting a spiffed up Criterion release. It's a great treat for those interested in anarchic cinema, sexual taboos, or eccentric figures...