Friday, January 09, 2004

REVIEW(s): Morgiana and Who Wants To Kill Jessie? (Kdo chce zabít Jessii)

Morgiana: * * ½ (out of four)
Jessie: * * * ¼ (out of four)

Seen 7 January 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Czech Horror & Fantasy On Film)

I've got no good excuse for missing these movies. Sure, Clinton McClurg may have complained about the Museum Of Fine Arts only running them in the afternoon on the Boston Cult Movies List, but I'm currently unemployed (of course, that does make the $10 single-admission ticket at the MFA less appealing). Then it shows up at the Brattle, an easy walk from where I live, and I only make it to one night's worth. Ah, well. Maybe some of the folks reading this (on some days, one has to take off shoes to count them all!) will, um, check out the series when it reaches their town. Of course, according to the official website, it looks like the Brattle was the last stop.

But on with the movies. Morgiana reminded me of a Hammer film in style, though with less in the way of the supernatural. It features a slow-acting poison that is impossibly perfect for the film's needs, though that is likely a holdover from the source material. It's a bizarre film, featuring a cat's-eye-view camera for no particular reason, a sort of arty credit sequence, and probably the least subtle soundtrack this side of Signs. Costume design and make-up are interesting, as they run the gamut between incredibly elaborate and almost slipshod. This might be intended, however - the elaborate costumes belong to women of means, whereas the servents and soldiers in this period piece are dressed in what look almost like hand-me-downs.

The story itself is a contrived Victorian-era melodrama. Sisters Viktorie and Klara (both played by Iva Janzurová) each inherit a house and staff when their father passes on. Viktorie, the older sister, is jealous of Klara's popularity (and house in town as opposed to country), and to make it worse, Klara is nothing but kind, even trying to have some of her suitors pay attention to her sister. Soon, Vikkie has obtained a supposedly untraceable poison that will work over time, giving her the opportunity to appear the concerned sister and divert suspicion. But, as the poison is working, her supplier blackmails her...

Quite frankly, the story is absurd. Vikkie is such a thoroughgoing villainess I'm surprised that she doesn't grow her fingernails a foot long and cackle more than she does. The sisters are pretty clearly labeled, with Vikkie always dressing entirely in black and her black hair in a severe bun, and her makeup in harsh shapes. Klara, on the other hand, is dressed in white with flowing red hair in lovely ringlets. This is not to say the movie is valueless; there's fun in melodrama, and director Juraj Herz uses his leading lady well - despite being a 1972 film from an Eastern Bloc nation, it's never terribly obvious that the same actress is playing two roles. Herz chooses a narrow aspect ratio - 1.37:1 or 1.66:1 - and uses close-ups to make sure only one sister is on-screen most of the time, and makes good use of doubles and the very occasional split-screen shot. He may have been trying to use some of the artsier, showier techniques to camoflage the double role. If that was his intent, good job.

Who Wants To Kill Jessie? is something entirely different, a thoroughly deadpan comedy-fantasy. I'd happily buy it on video if it were available, but, alas, special screenings in series like this seem to be the only way to see it. The story is a simple high-concept: Ruzenka Beránková (Dana Medrická) has created a formula that can remove elements from dreams (you can tell they've been removed, because there's a nifty television screen capable of showing a subject's dreams). What she doesn't realize is that these elements manifest themselves in the real world. Bad enough when it's the gadflys of a cow's nightmare, but when she uses it on her husband (Jirí Sovák), whose dreams include the characters from the comic strip "Who Wants To Kill Jessie?"... Well, it's bad enough that Jessie is a beautiful, blond, voluptuous girl (who is also a scientific genius), but the two men chasing her, a musclebound superhero and a gun-toting cowboy, cause serious damage to the apartment building and later city of Prague. And when the courts decide the husband should be liable - they are, after all, his dreams - more chaos ensues.

Jessie is quite short - IMDB lists it at 80 minutes - but doesn't waste any of its running time. Nearly every minute has something funny happening, whether it be a cow's dreams or the comic strip characters' penchant for speaking with word balloons. The film is shot in anamorphic black-and-white, and I'm not sure color would have helped it; it could have easily come out looking like the Batman live-action TV series or Austin Powers. The look of this 1966 movie suggests bright colors, but keeps it from looking garish or dated. It's also played perfectly straight - that Mrs. Beránková has a dream monitor in her bedroom isn't remarked upon, and the reactions to these comic-book characters running around Prague is stoic as can be.

A good many movies are filmed in Prague nowadays, and there are many reasons for it - labor is cheap in Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic is one of the more stable countries to emerge from the fall of communism, and there are many scenic locations that require little redressing for period shooting. But these two films, at least, suggest a strong film tradition, not just in terms of creative people at the top (every country likely has had one or two geniuses emerge), but of an actual film industry capable of lending strong production values to even films as lightweight as these going back thirty or forty years.

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