My curriculum was packed with boring subjects when I was at school. Maths was always a chore, chemistry was just soul-crushing, and history was the biggest snooze. For three years we sat in the same brown dusty classroom full of brown dusty books, listening to the teacher drone on. He was a pale gingery man who resembled the Gestapo agent in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and always wore a brown suit that looked like it was tailored from a rest home carpet. We only ever seemed to study World War I and II, without ever finding out any of the larger context surrounding the conflicts.
It was only after I left school and started reading up on things by myself that I came to wonder: how does anyone make a subject like World War II boring? On paper, it’s like the synopsis of the greatest, most exciting war movie ever made. I realized that it wasn’t the subject that was boring, it was the teacher. It’s the way you tell ’em, I suppose.
On paper, 3 Seasons in Hell sounds like pretty suspenseful stuff. Opening in 1947 Czechoslovakia, we follow a young nonconformist poet who falls in with a Bohemian crowd, just as the Communist regime seizes control of the country and starts clamping down on intellectual and subversive activities that don’t suit their agenda. Our arrogant young hero soon finds himself in increasing danger…
Continue reading “3 Seasons in Hell (3 Sezony V Pelke) – Tomás Masín, 2009”
Later this year, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter will appear in Bill & Ted Face the Music, almost thirty years after their last outing as the airheaded rockers, Wild Stallyns. Reeves can seemingly do no wrong these days but the omens and the trailer don’t look good.
Alex Winter may have had a quiet couple of decades career-wise, but Reeves has become a cultural icon, the internet’s favourite celebrity nice guy, and has been kicking ass well into his fifties and making it look easy in the John Wick movies. So why does he need to give a belated victory lap as the character that helped make him a huge star? It rarely fares well…
Continue reading “The Inheritance or You Shouldn’t Say That (Dědictví aneb Kurva se neříká) – Robert Sedláček, 2014”
Let’s face it – most modern film versions of fairytales suck.
The pervasive obsession with postmodern spins on these timeless tales is largely to blame, and one big green grumpy ogre has been the chief culprit over the past twenty years or so.
The trend started much earlier though, with The Princess Bride in 1987. It wasn’t a hit at the box office but built a devoted cult following and, while it pokes fun at fairytales, it felt like an affectionate tribute and still had a magic of its own.
The real groundwork for the genre’s ultimate destruction came with Robin Williams’ motormouthed genie in Aladdin five years later. The classic Disney comedy sidekick had been around for many years, but it wasn’t until his livewire performance put a jolt into the tired House of Mouse formula that the postmodern take on a classic tale really took hold. Although the film was ostensibly set in ancient Arabia, the genie was a burst of irreverent, anachronistic energy, riffing on cars, quiz shows and submarines while firing off impressions of Groucho Marx and Jack Nicholson.
Then in 2001 came DreamWorks’ Shrek. Based on William Steig’s children’s book, the project had been in development for several years, with names like Nicolas Cage and Chris Farley attached as the grumpy ogre, before the part eventually fell to Mike Myers. He trotted out his favourite Scor-tesh accent and Eddie Murphy tried to out-do the irreverence as his wisecracking donkey sidekick. Indeed, it felt like a movie entirely populated by comedy sidekicks and its approach initially seemed fresh, putting a spin on a variety of fairytale characters ranging from the Gingerbread Man to Puss in Boots (who got his own movie spinoff). Shrek was a massive hit and the concept of an earnest fairytale was pretty much lost…
Continue reading “Three Wishes for Cinderella (Tři oříšky pro Popelku) – Václav Vorlíček, 1973”
It has taken two years to reach this point, but this article marks the 50th post on Czech Film Review. Since the first Czech film I saw was Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains, I thought it would be appropriate to mark the occasion by talking about another one of his films, Cutting it Short.
It’s yet another idyllic shaggy dog story based on a Bohumil Hrabal work, a rose-tinted yet ultimately kinky tale about the writer’s parents when they conceived the future literary legend. Set around the end of the First World War and shortly before the establishment of the first Czechoslovak Republic, it is a typically Menzelian joint lovingly satirizing small-town life, populated by a familiar bunch of cranks and oddballs…
Continue reading “Cutting it Short (Postřižiny) – Jiří Menzel, 1980”
This is the blurb on Netflix for Petr Jákl’s Ghoul:
“Three filmmakers investigating a story about cannibalism during a 1932 famine find themselves trapped in a haunted house after conducting a seance.”
Holy shit, I thought, this movie has it all… cannibalism! a haunted house! Seances! Directed by the action-packed former stuntman who gave us the hugely enjoyable Kajinek! How could I refuse?
Unfortunately, despite its lurid premise, Ghoul doesn’t hit the spot quite as well. Jákl’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach that worked so well in his wrongly accused hardman thriller works to the detriment of this by-the-numbers found-footage horror, bogging the movie down with evermore plot when we should be getting to the scares…
Continue reading “Ghoul (2015) – Petr Jákl”
“Of all my films, The Shop on Main Street touches me most closely. Elmar Klos and I usually work as equal partners, but in this case he left me a free hand. He knows that I am not thinking of the fate of all the six million tortured Jews, but that my work is shaped by the fate of my father, my friends’ fathers, mothers of those near to me and by people whom I have known. I am not interested in the outer trappings—figures, statements, generalizations. I want to make emotive films…”
– Ján Kadár, New York Herald Tribune, Jan 23 1966
With any major catastrophe resulting in the loss of human life, I often find it difficult to get my head around the numbers. Sometimes incidental details can help visualize the size of the tragedy. For example, after I first watched The Shop on Main Street and was pondering Kadár’s quote above, the official Coronavirus death toll in the UK had just passed 30,000. That’s roughly a capacity crowd at Portman Road in Ipswich, where I was a season ticket holder for ten years. So now I only had to imagine a packed stadium suddenly silenced forever to get to grips with the scale of the public health disaster/scandal in my country.
But six million? A quick Google search tells me that is approximately the entire population of Turkmenistan, which doesn’t really help comprehend the vastness of the Holocaust. And that is the brilliance of The Shop on Main Street – better than anything else I’ve seen on the subject, it narrows the focus down to two individuals and makes us feel personally involved in the horror of their circumstances. The 55-year-old Academy Award winner hit me hard, feeling as fresh and vital as any other film I’ve seen about the Holocaust in recent years.
The Shop on Main Street wears its flawed greatness lightly, starting with a comedic tone and growing darker, building a sense of dread until its harrowing conclusion. And then… well, spoilers ahead: I’ll talk about that ending later…
Continue reading “Czechoslovak Film Review: The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze) – Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965”
Shot in wintry hues and set against a tumultuous backdrop of the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of World War II, František Vláčil’s Adelheid is a tragic drama about two shellshocked, fatally star-crossed lovers who find each other amid the psychic fallout from the conflict.
The story opens in 1945. The war may be over but it’s still a dangerous time, with lawlessness and banditry as the liberated country tries to find its feet again. Troubled Lieutenant Viktor Chotovick (Petr Čepek) arrives in a small town after spending the war moving from place to place, longing to return to his home country. He is treated with initial suspicion by Sergeant Hejna (Jan Vostrcil, a familiar face from Miloš Forman’s New Wave stuff, including Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball). Turns out Viktor is in town with a job to do – he’s been assigned to catalogue and manage a large isolated mansion.
The assignment suits Viktor because he’s just trying to get his head together after the war. The mansion was formerly the home of a wealthy Jewish family before it was commandeered by a local Nazi party member, Heidenmann, who has been captured and taken to Olomouc to await execution. What Viktor isn’t told is that the mansion comes with a cleaner and a cook – Heidenmann’s daughter, Adelheid (Emma Černá), who is sent by Hejna to serve Viktor…
Continue reading “Adelheid (1970) – František Vláčil”
“A woman’s womb is the gateway to Hell,” whispers a rabidly fanatical monk at the beginning of Otakar Vávra’s Witchhammer (Kladivo na čarodějnice), while we cut away to watch a group of women bathing nude.
It’s a provocative opening and, although Vávra had the Communist show trials of the 1950s in mind while making the film, it sets out its stall early: the problem is the patriarchy, and sexual repression goes hand-in-hand with political repression, a theme that is as depressingly relevant fifty years later. Or 300-odd years on from the events of the film. Same as it ever was.
The film takes its title from the Malleus Maleficarum, a weighty 15th-century tome that details at length the procedures deemed necessary for dealing with witchcraft, including the methods of torture that were legally permissible for extracting confessions from the accused…
Continue reading “Witchhammer (Kladivo na čarodějnice) – Otakar Vávra, 1970”
Dora Charleston: Mr Diamond, you have a bullet hole in your back!
Sam Diamond: You should see the other guy.
– Maggie Smith & Peter Falk hamming it up in Murder by Death
The 1970s was a big decade for pastiches of classic detective fiction. Robert Altman brought a slovenly, anachronistic Philip Marlowe into a bohemian, weed-scented Los Angeles in The Long Goodbye; there was a whole raft of reimaginings of the Sherlock Holmes myth, including The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother; Neil Simon brought together a roster of thinly-disguised classic sleuths – Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Charlie Chan, Hercule Poirot and Nick and Nora Charles – in his silly spoof Murder by Death.
Even the Czechs got in on the act, with Oldřich Lipský’s Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet (Adéla ještě nevečeřela) resurrecting a gumshoe from an earlier era that I wasn’t familiar with: Nick Carter…
Continue reading “Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet (Adéla ještě nevečeřela) – Oldřich Lipský, 1977”
Back when I was completely skint (as opposed to just moderately skint nowadays), bottle returns were a lifesaver just before payday. With a 3kc deposit coming back on every bottle, you could fund another evening’s beer with a moderate stack of empties!
Now, most supermarket chains in the Czech Republic have moved across to automated deposit machines. They lack the personal touch of handing over your bottles through a little window to a person standing in the gloom of the shop’s stockroom, shuffling empties into crates and handing over handwritten tickets for the amount you could deduct from your next purchase. Some smaller stores still have bottle return windows, but it is clear that it’s a dying profession.
Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák, the crack father and son team behind popular hits like The Elementary School and Kolya, have often made films touched with nostalgia. They join forces once again for Empties (Vratné lahve), a compassionate and grown-up comedy-drama that largely revolves around a man finding a new lease of life when he gets one of these endangered jobs, working the bottle returns window at his local supermarket…
Continue reading “Empties (Vratné lahve) – Jan Svěrák, 2007”