Beauty and the Beast (Panna a Netvor) – Juraj Herz, 1978

Panna a Netvor 1

From subterranean lairs beneath Paris opera houses to the belfries of Notre Dame, it’s a story we’ve heard time and time again. Here’s another version – boy is a giant ape from Skull Island who falls in love with a human girl; girl freaks out because the boy is a giant ape who’s carrying her around like a rag doll. Boy snaps a few dinosaur necks to protect her, and the girl suddenly realises he’s just a big sweetie inside. Girl goes back to New York and the boy is captured, goes on a rampage through the city. Boy finds girl again and drags her to the top of the Empire State Building, where gets shot down by some biplanes. Just in case the viewer missed the influence, the original King Kong concludes with the line: “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”

The format first found widespread popularity in Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1740 fairytale, La Belle et la Bête, although the story itself can be traced to much older myths like Cupid and Psyche in the 2nd Century AD – hence the lyric “Tale as old as time” in the Disney version.

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Filmmakers were relatively late in making a movie version of the story, starting with Jean Cocteau’s revered La Belle et la Bête in 1946, widely regarded as the definitive film adaptation of the tale. Then, of course, there was the Disney version, a prized asset in the House of Mouse’s Renaissance in the 90s.

Before and since there have been many other adaptations, including Juraj Herz’s 1978 Panna a Netvor. With Herz, the mastermind behind The Cremator and Morgiana, in charge, it’s safe to say you’re not going to get any singing teapots in this version…

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All My Good Countrymen (Všichni dobří rodáci) – Vojtěch Jasný, 1968

All My Good Countrymen cinematography

When people find out that I write about Czech movies, one of the questions they sometimes ask is: why are so many Czech films about the Communist era?

The example I always use is this: I’m from England, and such a large part of our national identity is defined by World War II, which lasted six years. Three iconic events from the conflict – Dunkirk, the Blitz, and the Battle of Britain – are still touchstones in our collective conscience and influence how we think of ourselves as a people. Even seventy-odd years later, nostalgia for the war played a part in the campaign to leave the European Union.

And, of course, we’re still making successful movies about it.

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Czechoslovakia, by comparison, spent over forty years in the clutches of a Communist regime, only to regain independence relatively recently. It’s little wonder that the period still exerts such a powerful hold on the Czech national psyche and is ingrained so deeply in the country’s culture. Not only that, but forty years is a long time, so even films that aren’t directly about it still have life under communism very present as background scenery. We can probably expect Czech cinema to go on exploring those decades of subjugation for many years to come…

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Zelary (Želary) – Ondřej Trojan, 2003

As sturdy and dependable as its rugged leading man, György Cserhalmi, Želary is a classy wartime romantic drama that scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2004. While the story suffers from over-familiarity, it earns its emotional payoff thanks to strong performances by an excellent cast and thoughtful direction by Ondřej Trojan.

The film opens in 1940s Nazi-occupied Prague as dapper surgeon Richard (Trojan) and his nurse/lover Eliška (Anna Geislerová) respond to an emergency call to save a seriously injured man. The patient requires an urgent transfusion and Eliška unquestioningly gives the much-needed blood.

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Richard and Eliška are also part of the resistance, and when her attempt to run a message to a contact falls foul of the Gestapo, the whole network is suddenly in mortal danger. Richard hastily emigrates, leaving Eliška with forged papers, and a friend tells her that if she wants to escape detection she must assume a new identity and leave the city in the company of Joza (Cserhalmi), the man whose life she helped save…

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Grapes (Bobule) – Tomáš Bařina, 2008

It’s been a funny sort of year so far, hasn’t it? Usually one of the things I love most about living in the Czech Republic is the slow build-up to summer, with the palpable sense of anticipation that grows during the spring months before the good weather really sets in. It’s been a different story in 2020 thanks to Covid-19, going into lockdown in early March and popping up again months later with summer already in full swing. Now we’re only a few weeks away from the start of burčák season, which means autumn is already on its way…

This year also saw the release of 3Bobule, the third in the popular series of romantic comedies set among the vineyards of South Moravia. So with these two things combined, I thought it was the perfect time to check out the original film in the trilogy, Bobule

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Wild Flowers (Kytice) – F.A. Brabec, 2000

Vodnik Dan Barta Kytice 2000

Like a struggling Hogwarts student about to flunk their final exam, F.A Brabec fails to conjure the requisite magic to transform Wild Flowers into something completely worth watching. Flashy visuals and a strong cast can’t disguise the fact that this is an extremely patchy anthology based on the ballads of Czech folklorist, Karel Jaromir Erben…

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Those Wonderful Years That Sucked (Báječná léta pod psa) – Petr Nikolaev, 1997

If you’re a regular follower of Czech Film Review you’ll know that I have a long-standing beef with movies based on the works of Michael Viewegh. I hate them so much – especially Angels (Andělé všedního dne), which must rank as one of the worst movies I’ve seen in any language – that I’m kind of addicted to them. Not only are they sexist, ageist and homophobic, but they’re also just so damned mean-spirited, with a nihilistic view on human relationships. Perhaps the subtleties of Viewegh’s novels don’t adapt well to the screen, but Viewegh seems to hate all his characters, especially women. So what made the novelist such a black-hearted misanthrope? It’s like a puzzle I need to solve.

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So I arrived at Those Wonderful Years That Sucked, based on Viewegh’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Semi-autobiographical, eh? It’s probably going to be a heinous chore just like his other adaptations, I thought, but maybe I’ll find some answers…

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Barefoot (Po strništi bos) – Jan Svěrák, 2017

Barefoot 2017 Sverak

Prequels are, by and large, one of the most pointless things in cinema. By their very nature they lack much dramatic thrust, as we already know where the story will end up. Over the past few decades, prequels have also become synonymous with major studios cashing in on profitable intellectual properties, often ruining the mystique of the original film or films. The very word “prequel” is capable of setting a certain type of Star Wars fan into a fit of rage…

In a very modest field, Barefoot (Po strništi bos) stands out as one of the better prequels available for your delectation. At first it seems like a slender prospect, arriving a full 26 years after Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák’s Oscar-nominated crowdpleaser, The Elementary School (Obecná škola). Delightful though that movie was, it favoured nostalgic, anecdotal comedy and doesn’t seem like the obvious choice for prequel treatment.

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However, if you ever wondered what the kid in The Elementary School got up to during the death throes of World War II – that is, literally a year or two before the events of the original movie – then Barefoot will answer all your burning questions…

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3 Seasons in Hell (3 Sezony V Pelke) – Tomás Masín, 2009

Hadek in 3 Seasons in He'll

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…

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The Inheritance or You Shouldn’t Say That (Dědictví aneb Kurva se neříká) – Robert Sedláček, 2014

Bolek Polivka as Bohus

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.

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Take a look at Dumb or Dumber To. Or rather, don’t. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels had built well-respected, award-winning careers before they put another shrimp on the barbie and reprised their roles as the childish, dim-witted Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne. It worked when they were younger, but seeing two middle-aged men behave in such a way was just pathetic, and even a little bit creepy…

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Three Wishes for Cinderella (Tři oříšky pro Popelku) – Václav Vorlíček, 1973

Libuse Sanfrankova as Cinderella

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.

Three Wishes for Cinderella Blu Ray

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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…

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