Tuesday, September 28, 2021

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...

Dr. Jekyll and His Women (1981)

Esteemed young Doctor Henry Jekyll has invited some guests over for his engagement party. He entertains friends and family with his fiancee Fanny, until the party is spoiled by news of a nearby murder. The tension immediately grows as the household itself is invaded by a psychotic and lustful intruder. As the men of the house gather weapons to defend themselves, Fanny sneaks off to follow her fiance, witnessing Henry make a horrifying transformation...

French based Pole Walerian Borowczyc specialised in sexually and religiously transgressive films, often exposing what he saw as the hypocrisy among the elite, and in society as a whole. Some of his moves garnered considerable controversy on their release, such as the period piece The Beast. 1981's Dr. Jekyll and His Women is perhaps his darkest films, and certainly one of the more adult and eyebrow raising adaptions Robert Louis Stevenson's classic chiller ever got! Where else could you see Mr. Hyde with a hilariously fake 9 foot long penis?

*Or 'The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne' as its creator originally intended. Bit of a wordy title, and not as grabby as the ultimate name, but respect to Arrow Films for restoring it for the spiffy DVD-Blu-ray release.

For the first third, Dr. Jekyll and His Women is quite boring, consisting almost entirely of extremely dry conversations. There is enough time where a boring movie can redeem itself before that point of no return. Thankfully this does just that, and the remainder of the film is more entertaining. The pace is still languid and the events minimal, but they are presented and spread out well, and the fact that things are actually happening now make it automatically more enthralling than a bunch of stuffed-shirts gabbing on/blethering on. It's not perfect by any means, and there are still a few moments where my attention dipped, but it was alright at least.

There's a disappointing climax, that makes little sense. It is an impactful final scene, but it requires every character involved to be an idiot. If Jekyll doesn't have any more antidote, why did he draw another formula bath to begin with? There's also a montage that crams in as much 'shocking' material as it can within 5 minutes. Where was all of this during the first 85 minutes?

In theory this is a good representation of the source material. It's not a literal adaption, but more of a spiritual one, and you can tell that Walerian does understand the story's ideas, in a way that some people haven't. But do I think he did it well overall? Not so much. The way the story is told felt a bit slipshod, taking forever to do some things, and omitting many key moments from the book.

Dr. Jekyll and His Woman has clear moral themes to show, and my problem with them is that ultimately it's all a bit simple. The theme really just amounts to "Society toffs can be real perverts behind closed doors, right? Right?". Yes, they can, we know. Do you have anything else of substance to tell us? A movie doesn't necessarily need the most complicated of themes to be successful, but when the whole point is built around something that can take 5 seconds to explain, and you get the picture only 10 minutes in, you have a problem.

The film also highlights the sexual repression of the era, where well-behaved innocent Victorian ladies secretly harbour kinky fantasies. I am sure most ladies of the era were indeed innocent and pureminded, but these are the same women who made The Sheikh popular, and regularly had rape fantasies about Arab sheiks kidnapping them, so Walerian clearly understands his time period well.

This is very much a character driven story, and in some ways they are decently written, but boring in others. The titular lead sadly feels like a background character in his own movie. Mr. Hyde is even less of a character for the most part, being so animalistic you can't imagine how he'd even hold a normal conversation. I would've been interested to see him at the reading of any will!

The film is nearly over before we get any insight to why Jekyll is doing any of this. And he's so brazen! How does he think he'll get away with all this, when he's not even trying to hide it. The process of transforming into Hyde isn't an easy one either, nor does it happen automatically. Jekyll has got to run a bath of water, make a formula, drink some, then fill the water with spooky bath salts until it looks like red pond slime, then bathes chaotically. In the climax when he begs his mate Lanyon for help to get him back to normal, you lose sympathy for the guy when you see just how many steps he deliberately took to do this.

The most notable guest is the general, who's a boisterous and authorative fellow, immediately taking charge when the house is locked down. There's a hilarious moment when he recklessly guns down the family coachmen, then has to sheepishly admit responsibility to the lady of the house. He then proceeds to try and justify it by saying this is like war. Tell that to the coachman's wife, dumbass!

His daughter is a naughty girl who must really have it in for her dad. She shows herself to be loyal to the home invader, though we never see her corrupted by Hyde. She's just suddenly infatuated enough with him to torment her father, then help stick him with arrows. And the girl ends up shocked that Hyde wants to kill her too. Awww, really? I am aghast, dear lady. Her death scene is incredibly weak. Hyde just fires some arrows offscreen, and we hear her going "Ah. Ah."

Dr. Jekyll's friend Dr. Lanyon isn't the most memorable of characters, but he is one of the only ones left by the climax. He has a terminal case of stupidity when he has Hyde at gunpoint, but allows himself to be dissuaded. This allows for a dramatic transformation, after which he suddenly drops dead in surprise. I was fully expecting Hyde to kill him, but nope. It feels like the character just magically dies because the script had no further need of him.

And lastly, there's Fanny, Jekyll's beleaguered fiancee. She's a fairly innocent girl, but makes an abrupt turn near the end. After a whole movie of getting the crap beaten out of her, shot by arrows, and threatened with murder, she then decides that being evil is awesome, and she wants in on it. It's a fairly predictable turn, and though I was looking forward to seeing how it'd play out, it's not as fleshed-out as it could've been.

The acting here is ok. Udo Kier is decent, but it's a bit of a thankless role really. Despite being the lead, he's barely onscreen, and he doesn't get to take part in the wild shenanigans of Jekyll's other half, absent altogether from the ending. Doubling as Hyde is Gerard Zalcberg. I was gonna say, the make-up job they did to Udo Kier made him look like another actor! That's because it is. Although they did still do something to the guy's face to make him look as uncanny as he does. Marina Pierro is decent in her role, and gets to cut loose in the last few minutes. Patrick Magee is funny as the general, while euro-horror regular Howard Vernon is a welcome presence.

As for what language to watch this in, I'd recommend the first half hour in English, and the rest in French. It's worth seeing Patrick Magee's performance in his original language, with all his amusing bluster, but otherwise the original French track is superior, if for no other reason than Udo Kier gets to use his real voice.

Walerian does a great job with the direction, shooting his actors and locations competently and with style. I really dug the running theme of mirrors and doubles. Although he overdoes the motif after a while, and I began thinking it'd make for a fun drinking game. Take a shot each time a character looks longingly or enigmatically in a mirror.

The score to Dr. Jekyll and His Women is really special. It's a unique and experimental collection of tracks, that really build up an offputting atmosphere. They feel right out of something like Shadow Man (N64)  My only qualm would be that it sounds a little modern, clashing with the antique time period. I kept wondering if I was watching an updated version with new soundtrack. Small quibble though. Bernard Parmegiani really did a stellar job here.

Overall, Dr. Jekyll and His Women has its good sides for sure. It's interesting in some ways, and as a horror film it does its job reasonably well, even if it is aimed specifically at the arty crowd, rather than the casual moviegoers who are content with simple hack and slash fare (not meant as an insult, I adore such films!). It has its flaws too, and all in all it's a real mixed bag...