In Context: Jára Cimrman Lying, Sleeping (Jára Cimrman ležící, spící) – Ladislav Smoljak, 1983

Zdenek Sverak as Jara Cimrman

How do you even start with a personage the size of Jára Cimrman? I feel like I’m describing Leonardo da Vinci using nothing but Morse code printed on popsicle sticks. I’d love to just talk about the film, Jára Cimrman Lying, Sleeping but without context, it would make no sense to you. So I’ll try to give you a sliver of a fragment of an introduction to the best playwright, philosopher, skier, and teacher – Jára Cimrman.

Jára Cimrman: Cultural Icon

This man is the closest thing to a national treasure the Czechs have, and he is still very much alive in the cultural space: his more than 15 plays are still running, he has a museum in Prague’s watchtower, Petřín, and he even has an asteroid named after him (7796 Járacimrman). His biggest peak was probably the 2005 Greatest Czech competition (which happened in reaction to the 100 Greatest Britons show in the UK and across Europe). But Cimrman didn’t make it in the end. He was unrightfully disqualified for being fictional…

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Cutting it Short (Postřižiny) – Jiří Menzel, 1980

Jiri Menzel Cutting it Short

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.

Postriziny DVD

Buy Cutting it Short from Amazon HERE

The story centres on Francin (Jiří Schmitzer), an earnest accountant who has been hired by the local brewery to get their books in order and take the business to the next level. He sets up home in a spacious apartment on the brewery premises with his free-spirited wife Maryška (Magdaléna Vášáryová, who played the eponymous Marketa Lazarová). She knows the way to a Czech guy’s heart, currying favour with the board of directors by slaughtering a pig and laying on a copious meat feast…

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Waiter, Scarper! (Vrchní, prchni!) – Ladislav Smoljak, 1981

In my first review for this site, Accumulator 1, I commented on how Zdeněk Svěrák (Kolya, Empties) was the clear highlight of an otherwise unbalanced film. This time around, I’m delighted to explore a project that actually showcases more of his talents as a screenwriter as well as an actor. Written and directed, respectively, by the duo of Sverák and Ladislav Smoljak, Waiter, Scarper! tells the story of a bookseller named Vrána (Josef Abrhám) who becomes a thief by posing as a waiter to take money from unsuspecting customers.

The film starts with Vrána getting ready for his high school reunion by donning a tuxedo that makes him resemble a waiter. Once he arrives, he realizes that most of his classmates have gone on to have a much better life than him.

Buy Waiter, Scarper! from Amazon HERE

His marriages have left him in dire straits since he has to pay alimony while also supporting his current family, and even his neighbour, Parizek (Svěrák), who plays the fiddle, has a better car than him. He’s so ashamed of what his life has become that he leaves his noticeably cheaper car in the parking area — only to pick it up later when nobody’s around…

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Lemonade Joe (Limonádový Joe) – Oldřich Lipský, 1964

Lemonade Joe Karel Fiala

Honestly, I have nostalgia goggles the size of monster truck wheels for this one! Lemonade Joe, or the Horse Opera came out in 1964 but my entire generation can quote it to no end. It falls into the perfect timing of being a new film for our parent’s childhood and old enough to be cool for our own. So within the Czech culture, this film is a classic.

Even so, I was afraid to revisit it. Many films from my childhood didn’t age well and I was afraid the same would happen here. What didn’t help was a vague memory of blackface and some of the timeless quotes feeling kind of tired after the last fifteen years of repetition.

Lemonade Joe DVD

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But I was pleasantly surprised. The film has an energy that most modern comedies long for. Lemonade Joe falls into the Crazy comedy genre, popular in the Czech Republic, which includes titles such as Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet or The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians. In American cinema, it would be a mixture of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and John Landis’ The Blues Brothers. It takes the nonsensical, absurdist plot and the song breaks from Blues Brothers and the setting with quick-fire jokes and slapstick from Blazing Saddles. It might be surprising to some that it’s older than both…

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Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet (Adéla ještě nevečeřela) – Oldřich Lipský, 1977

Adele Hasn't Had Her Dinner Yet 1977

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.

Adele Blu Ray

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Carter is largely unremarkable save for the distinction of preceding Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes by a year or two, and Lipský, forever playful with western genre fiction, gleefully pits the half-forgotten detective with an antagonist straight out of Little Shop of Horrors. Along the way we also get the director’s goofy sight gags, fabulous steampunk-ish gadgets by Jan Švankmajer, and broad performances from a variety of Czech actors playing the shenanigans with a straight face…

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Accumulator 1 (Akumulátor 1)  -  Jan Svěrák, 1994

Zdeněk Svěrák in Accumulator 1

Co-written and directed by Jan Svěrák (Kolya, The Elementary School), Accumulator 1 is an entertaining film that features a lot of interesting ideas, but they just don’t come together in a way that’s coherent enough to justify their existence.

The film features a pretty bizarre premise: people who have appeared on television are suddenly losing their energy and dying. The main character, a self-conscious man named Olda (Petr Forman) turns into a recluse after he misses his shot with the girl he’s interested in. He becomes so lethargic that all he does is watch TV for a whole week and loses consciousness for a couple of days. The paramedics save him by barging into his apartment, and at the hospital, he meets a mysterious man, Fišarek (Zdeněk Svěrák), who heals him with his special abilities.

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Fišarek refers to himself as a natural healer. He helps people that have also suffered from the same condition as Olda. To reinvigorate himself, Fišarek advises Olda to gather energy from natural sources like exercise, the life force of trees, paintings, and even sexual stimulation. He teaches Olda how to harness the energy from these sources, and even shows him how to transfer energy over long distances…

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Empties (Vratné lahve) – Jan Svěrák, 2007

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.

Buy Empties from Amazon HERE

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…

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The Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek) – Jiří Menzel, 1984

In The Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek) Jiří Menzel returns to the well to make another gentle comedy featuring his favourite things: the works of Bohumil Hrabal, Rudolf Hrušínský, the idyllic Czech countryside, and the shenanigans of quarrelsome but essentially good-hearted village folk.

As with many of Menzel’s films in a similar vein (Capricious Summer, My Sweet Little Village, Seclusion Near a Forest) the plot is slight – more a comic panorama than a conventional narrative, as Vincent Canby of the New York Times kindly put it. The pacing of The Snowdrop Festival is relaxed even by Menzel’s standards, with the film apparently starting before anyone in it has noticed.

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We’re gradually introduced to the inhabitants of the small village of Kersko, including Franc (Hrušínský Senior), a browbeaten retiree who spends his whole time trying to sneak off to the pub without incurring the wrath of his domineering wife and daughter; Leli (Jaromír Hanzlík) an accident-prone, optimistic guy who can’t resist buying defective knock-offs just because they’re cheap; and Karel (Jirí Krejcík) who is thrown into carnivorous ecstasy at the mere smell of freshly smoked salami…

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Loves of a Blonde (Lásky jedné plavovlásky) – Miloš Forman, 1965

Loves of a Blonde 1

Andula (Hana Brejchová) works in a shoe factory in a small town where, thanks to inept state planning, women outnumber men by 16 to 1. She shares a dorm in a dreary hostel with several other women of her age, and despite the odds has a good-looking boyfriend called Tonda. He’s bought her a ring and told her the stone in it is a diamond. She wants to believe it.

Loves of a Blonde was Miloš Forman’s sophomore effort after Black Peter (Černý Petr) and is a key film of the Czech New Wave. The title may well be ironic. While Andula certainly seems to have no trouble attracting the attention of the opposite sex, the men in her life don’t seem even remotely capable of giving her the relationship she needs. She is quite worldly compared to some of her friends, but still dreams of love and romance – we can tell that from the opening scene, where she is cuddled up in bed with one of her friends cooing over the ring.

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Tonda, despite his respectable portrait pic, turns out to be an aggressive, possessive moron and the other guys in the movie aren’t much better. At a village dance, Andula and two friends are approached by three sleazy middle-aged soldiers who are stationed nearby. Their idea of wooing the girls is to get them drunk and take them for a quick knee-trembler in the woods nearby…

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The Oddsockeaters (Lichožrouti) – Galina Miklínová, 2016

Oddsockeaters 1

Entertaining two young kids during lockdown for eight weeks has sometimes involved a lot of Netflix. Now, I’m a snob and I like my five-year-old daughter to watch as many live-action movies as possible, and it’s crazy how many family films these days are CGI.

That said, I don’t have anything against computer-generated features as such, because studios like Pixar and Laika have produced some of the best family films of the past quarter of a century, balancing rollicking adventure and unforgettable characters with meaningful themes.

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However, for every Toy Story or Kubo and the Two Strings there are tons of poorly animated dross like The Dancing Pumpkin and the Ogre’s Plot, something that looks like it was put together by an algorithm rather than thinking, feeling human beings.

Somewhere in between – and thankfully more towards the Kubo end of the spectrum than The Dancing Pumpkin end – is The Oddsockeaters, a quirky fantasy adventure based on the book of the same name by Pavel Šrut. Directed by the book’s illustrator Galina Miklínová, it’s a playful tale about small magical creatures that love eating socks, but always leave one half of a pair for the owner, thus creating the age-old laundry mystery…

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