Bathory: Countess of Blood – Juraj Jakubisko, 2008

Bathory bathing in virgin blood (allegedly)

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most prolific female murderer of all time was Elizabeth Báthory, a 16th-century Hungarian noblewoman. She is said to have murdered over 600 young women, practising vampirism and bathing in their blood to preserve her own youth and beauty.

Now I don’t know what the verification process is for the Guinness Book of records (it’s been a long time since my own unsuccessful attempt to build the world’s largest pyramid out of empty beer cans) but this seems like an iffy one to me. Many of the testimonies were based on hearsay from superstitious bumpkins or extracted from “witnesses” by torture. The exact kill count is thought to be greatly exaggerated.

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Going to bat for poor old Elizabeth is veteran Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko with Bathory: Countess of Blood, an expensively mounted Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and British co-production. Setting out its stall as a revisionist historical epic, the movie veers wildly between horror, political intrigue and bodice-ripping romance, with some wacky comic touches thrown in for good measure – monks on clockwork rollerskates, for example.

In short, it’s a pretty kooky way to try clearing someone’s name, as Jakubisko attempts to rescue Báthory from the naughty step of history by spinning his own unreliable yarn…

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Doubles, aka Doppelgängers (Dvojníci) – Jirí Chlumský, 2016

Dvojnici Doubles

In 1999, a resident of Kansas City, Missouri named Richard Jones was banged up for aggravated robbery. The crime took place across the state line in Kansas City, Kansas, where a woman was knocked to the ground in a Walmart car park by three muggers who made off with her phone. Jones claimed that he was home at the time, but eyewitnesses identified him as one of the culprits. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison.

17 years later, Jones was released when police traced the real perpetrator, Ricky Amos, Jones’s “doppelgänger” who lived on the Kansas side of the city…

The idea of the doppelgänger, or a person’s perfect double, has long caught the imagination and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of examples in literature, film and TV. More often than not, the appearance of a doppelgänger in a character’s life spells trouble.

The well-worn concept is the subject of Jiří Chlumský’s likeable crime comedy Doubles (Dvojníci). Ondřej Sokol has fun in a dual role as two men with a striking similarity to one another: Honza Rambousek, a down-on-his-luck Prague thief in debt to his crime boss, and Richard Prospal, a mild-mannered teacher who is in town for a conference…

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Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy) – Karel Zeman, 1958

Sometimes when digging back through the decades to find “new” movies to review, a film will stand out as something so bright and marvellous that it feels like an antidote to our cynical times, with tentpole Hollywood blockbusters and cinematic universes dominating the box office.

One such film is Karel Zeman’s wondrous Invention for Destruction, a delightful flight of fancy that continually staggers the viewer with its imagination and sense of old school adventure…

Taking ideas from several of Jules Verne’s works but based primarily on his novel Facing the Flag, it’s the story of gentlemanly megalomaniac Count Artigas (Miloslav Holub) who rules the sea thanks to his steam-powered submarine and band of pirates. The lethal craft has enabled him to amass vast wealth, plundering treasure from old shipwrecks. When there’s not a shipwreck around to plunder, he can make one, using his sub to sink merchant’s vessels.

Invention for Destruction Blu Ray

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Now the Count wants to conquer the land and the air. To this end, he kidnaps Professor Roch (Arnošt Navrátil) and his dapper young assistant, Hart (Lubor Tokoš). The professor is working on futuristic technology, not unlike the atom bomb. While he intends the new tech for the benefit of mankind, Artigas wants to use it for a superweapon. He takes the captives to his secret lair in a dormant volcano to work on his fiendish plan, picking up a pretty survivor from a shipwreck, Jana (Jana Zatloukalová), along the way…

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Voyage to the End of the Universe (Ikarie XB-1) – Jindřich Polák, 1963

Influential sci-fi Ikarie XB-1

Despite the turmoil currently on planet earth, things are looking more optimistic up in space. Only last week scientists announced that they have picked up potential signs of life on Venus and, depending on the sources, a manned mission to Mars could launch within the next 10-20 years. Ambitious initiatives like Breakthrough Starshot are looking even further afield, with a vision of sending a tiny unmanned probe to investigate exoplanets orbiting our next-door neighbour in the cosmos, Alpha Centauri.

Long-distance space travel raises many physical and mental challenges for potential crew members. How will we keep our bodies from wasting away without gravity for our muscles to fight against? How will our minds cope with the isolation and the knowledge that, for future colonists of distant planets, it may be a one-way ticket? Will there be a decent curry house, and do they take visa?

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Some of these questions are tackled in Jindřich Polák’s visionary sci-fi thriller, Ikarie XB-1. Based on The Magellanic Cloud by legendary science fiction author Stanisław Lem, it charts the adventures of the crew of a near-light speed ship, Ikarie XB-1, on its 28-month mission to Alpha Centauri…

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Gangster Ka: Afričan (2015) – Jan Pachl

In last week’s review of Gangster Ka, the first instalment of Jan Pachl’s two-part crime thriller, I signed off hoping that the second chapter would do a Godfather: Part II and improve on the original. I meant it jokingly, but against all the odds Gangster Ka: Afričan bears out that comparison. Not in terms of craft, themes or quality, of course, but in the sense that it expands on the groundwork laid out by the first film, broadens the canvas and gives the characters more room to breathe. And it certainly makes for a far more entertaining movie…

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Gangster Ka (2015) – Jan Pachl

The first thing you’ll become aware of while watching Gangster Ka is that people talk about money. A lot. And by a lot I mean all the time – in the first half an hour, I was so bombarded by characters I’d barely met talking about large sums of cash that I considered breaking out the abacus to help keep up.

So what? You might think. Gangsters like money, don’t they?

Of course they do, but it got me thinking about how true classics of the gangster genre aren’t really about money at all. Take Goodfellas, for example. There’s plenty of cash floating around throughout the movie, and at one point some characters pull off a lucrative airport heist. Yet while our protagonist Henry Hill sure enjoys the money, it’s the life of a gangster that he’s addicted to. And, through his eyes, we are too.

The main problem with Gangster Ka is that it thinks the most interesting thing about its protagonist, Radim Kraviec (Hynek Čermák), is how much loot he’s making through his various scams. Ironically, this preoccupation with cash really cheapens an otherwise routine crime thriller.

Kraviec, based loosely on the real-life crime boss Radovan Krejčíř, is a mobster from Ostrava who heads a gang of Albanian criminals. Deciding the city is too small for him, he sets his sights on Prague and wastes no time hustling his way into some big scores, such as taking over Čepro, a company that owns the whole country’s fuel supplies. Along the way, he double-crosses the capital’s established kingpins, Milota (Miroslav Etzler) and Sivák (Alexej Pyško), and gains a glamourous wife, Sandra (Vlastina Svátková). His next goal is muscling into politics, with a view to getting the future Prime Minister in his pocket.

Things quickly go south when an associate informs on his plan to make his 3 billion Čepro tax bill disappear, and Kraviec finds himself doing porridge while his lawyer and his loyal lieutenant Dardan (Predrag Bjelac) busy themselves bribing judges to ensure his quick release. Meanwhile, Milota and Sivák realize it’s the perfect time to seek revenge…

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I Enjoy the World with You (S tebou mě baví svět) – Marie Poledňáková, 1982

As a writer dad, I enjoy observing the behaviour of other fathers at children’s cafes and play areas. There’s always the guy with his face stuck in his phone, oblivious to his offspring force-feeding a plastic pineapple to another kid. Then there’s the frazzled dad, gazing sadly into the middle distance as if trying to catch a glimpse of a parallel universe where he still doesn’t have children.

There’s the laddish dad, trying gamely to get involved with a beer in hand, giving it his best while also clearly wishing he was down the pub with his mates. Then there’s my favourite, the dad who starts eating a bag of Pom-Bar out of boredom or hunger, picks up speed, marvelling at how moreish they are until he’s stuffing whole fistfuls into his mouth, glancing around furtively to see if anyone has noticed him devouring his kid’s snack. I’ve often thought that the manufacturers of Pom-Bar should do an alternative grown-up packaging, like when there were adult covers for Harry Potter books, so dads could get stuck into a bag without feeling guilty or childish for enjoying them so much.

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Of all the types of dad I observe in these situations, it’s very rare to see one committing to his role with as much gusto or joie de vivre as the three central characters in I Enjoy the World with You. It’s a relentlessly kind-hearted family film that was once voted the best Czech comedy of all time. And, while it didn’t exactly have me rolling around on the floor with laughter, it’s not hard to see why the movie is so enduringly popular…

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2Grapes (2Bobule) – Vlad Lanné, 2009

Sequels often tend to go for bigger, faster, more. So what should we expect from 2Grapes (no, I don’t get the nonsense title either), the sequel to the mild romantic comedy hit Grapes?

I got to thinking about how the original film had at least three scenes that hinged on the explosive properties of burčák (young wine). So if we follow the bigger, faster, more model, what could be in store? Honza (Kryštof Hádek) returning to his criminal ways and using bottles of burčák to blow open a bank vault? Or perhaps converting his granddad’s battered old Citroen 2CV into a time machine, and using burčák to propel it to the 142kmh required to send it through time?

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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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Intimate Lighting (Intimní osvetlení)- Ivan Passer, 1965

As many of you already know, 2020 has been the year of a number of misfortunes that have affected all of us. One of which was the passing of Ivan Passer, a prominent figure that helped establish the Czech New Wave movement. He worked as an assistant director for some of Miloš Forman’s earlier films like Black Peter and Loves of a Blonde, a film he also co-wrote along with The Firemen’s Ball. Before he and Forman moved to the United States, Passer managed to direct his first full-length feature in his homeland of Czechoslovakia, titled Intimate Lighting, which is widely considered to be his masterpiece.

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The story centres around Bambas (Karel Blažek), a music teacher who invites his old friend Petr (Zdeněk Bezušek) to play as the soloist for an upcoming concert. Petr arrives at Bambas’ house accompanied by his young girlfriend, Stepa (Věra Křesadlová), where he meets Bamba’s wife, kids, and parents — who all live under the same roof. Much like Black Peter, the film focuses on individual moments in the lives of these characters as they go about their days. This might seem like there isn’t a lot going on, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. These moments actually give us insight into the lives of these characters and paint an earnest and realistic picture of domestic life…

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