Happy End (Šťastný konec) – Oldřich Lipský, 1966

At the very least it will put a big dumb grin on your face, followed by a slight frown as you gaze into the middle distance trying to figure out whether it all adds up or not. Happy End sure beats the hell out of last year’s joyless Tenet, although when it comes to telling a story backwards, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of Memento or Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. Just seeing the bravura way in which Oldřich Lipský flourishes the reverse chronology trick is worth your time alone. Yet it is a stunt that offers a breezy blast of comic relief while exploring the classics of the Czech New Wave. Ultimately that is all Happy End is – a stunt, but a clever and often hilarious one.

As brilliantly as Lipský pulls it off, it does get a little tiring towards the end – or should I say the beginning? My brain kept trying to flip the backwards conversations around to track their normal course, and it made my head hurt after a while. The popular director of quirky classics like Lemonade Joe and Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet had the sense to keep it short and sweet. Happy End clocks in at just 71 minutes and that is definitely a good thing.

Rounding out the main cast is Josef Abrhám as the shameless seducer, Mr Birdie, and formidable comic actress Helena Růžičková as our hero’s long-lost love. She has an innate knack for comic timing reminiscent of Madeline Kahn in those great Lipský-esque American comedies of around the same era – Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and What’s Up Doc? Jaroslava Obermaierová is a good foil for Menšík as his radiant, fragile wife Julie, gliding through the slapstick elements with grace intact, looking like she’s enjoying herself as much as the audience…

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Conspirators of Pleasure (Spiklenci Slasti) – Jan Švankmajer, 1996

When I first watched Jan Švankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure I didn’t even notice there was no dialogue. It so effectively overwhelms your senses, there isn’t much to be said anyway.

The film follows a group of individuals in Prague, each engrossed in a tedious process of creating the conditions for their erotic desire.

One man begins the process of creating an elaborate chicken costume. Another, engineers a machine with fake hands. A mailwoman uses her saliva to furtively mold bread balls in a stairwell. And that’s just the beginning.

Švankmajer knows that arousal (meaning in simple terms, heightened stimulation) comes from a combination of touch and imagination. When he was blacklisted as a filmmaker during Communist rule in Prague, he wrote a book about it, Touching and Imagining: An Introduction to Tactile Art.

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Švankmajer makes use of both touch and imagination to build context and storytelling around objects and characters without the support of dialogue.

In cinema we can technically only experience two senses, sound and sight. But Švankmajer uses extreme close-ups and heightened sound editing to bring a sense of tactility to objects…

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Wings of Christmas (Křídla Vánoc) – Karin Babinská, 2013

Tomás (Richard Krajčo) is possibly the movie-est movie optician in cinema history. He is a brooding tattooed hunk with rockstar looks who lives in a snowbound caravan just outside the Globus superstore where he works. With only his beloved horse to keep him company on those lonely nights spent listening to vinyl while looking smoulderingly handsome, he also juggles several affairs with local married women to fend off the solitude. He is always getting drunk and late for work, but that doesn’t matter – his boss is in love with him too.

The only woman he shares a platonic relationship with is Nina (Vica Kerekes), a forlorn girl who works on the gift-wrapping counter, which must suck because she hates Christmas. She lives alone in an apartment full of unpacked boxes and he is estranged from his family, so they end up spending the holidays together. Unsurprisingly, romantic feelings develop between them as they fry fish together and break into their place of work to steal basketfuls of groceries and booze…

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Three Brothers (Tři bratři) – Jan Svěrák, 2014

While many Christmas movies in English-speaking countries tend to focus around the festive season and sometimes feature a jolly chap with a white beard and red winter gear, Czech festive viewing often centres on fairy tales. There is a long tradition of TV and film adaptations, from The Proud Princess (Pyšná Princezna) to the classic Three Wishes for Cinderella (Tři oříšky pro Popelku).

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More recently, the popular father-and-son team of Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák got in on the action with Three Brothers, a cheerful fairy tale musical for kids that weaves together three very familiar tales…

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Hastrman – Ondřej Havelka, 2018

Hastrman 2018

One of my favourite folk tales from back home is the Wild Man of Orford, a small coastal village not far from where I grew up. In the 12th Century, a group of local fishermen hauled their nets to discover they’d caught a strange naked man covered in greenish hair. He was taken to the nearby castle for interrogation, but after six months his torturers realised he wasn’t able to speak. 

After that they let him exercise in the sea, stringing nets across the harbour so he couldn’t escape. The Wild Man easily swam under them, but each time he returned willingly to the castle. Eventually, he tired of life on the land, slipped under the nets one last time and vanished out to sea.

A similar water-dwelling character from the landlocked Czech Republic is the vodník, or hastrman, a water goblin popular in fairytales and made famous by folklorist Karel Jaromir Erben in his collection of ballads, Kytice. The creature lives in bodies of water and is capable of drowning the unwary if he’s in a bad mood, or providing bumper catches of fish for the locals if kept happy with sacrifices and offerings…

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Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Zítra vstanu a opařím se čajem) – Jindřich Polák, 1977

Here’s an obscure piece of UK film folklore… 

One Saturday night in the early ’80s, a man goes home early from the pub to watch the football highlights on Match of the Day. He settles down in front of the TV with a fresh beer, but the broadcast hasn’t started yet. He turns over to see what’s on the other two channels and drops into a strange film about identical twins, time travel and Nazis.

He becomes so engrossed that he watches to the end, missing the footie. On Monday morning he goes to work and tells his mates about this peculiar film, but no-one knows what he’s talking about. He doesn’t know the title because he missed the start, and trying to elaborate on the plot just makes him sound crazy…

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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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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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Food (Jídlo) – Jan Švankmajer, 1992

Svankmajer's Jidlo (Food)

Introducing Jan Švankmajer (Alice) to anyone always nets you a reputation for being a weirdo. From the word go, Food’s style is absurd and choppy, often very naturalistic, and more than a little risqué. But I think it’s well worth anyone’s time – so please indulge this weirdo as I talk about Švankmajer’s 1992 film Food and why it’s a lesser-known gem of Czech cinema.

Food contains three shorts films – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – that are thematically connected. They all contain some sort of food consumption (surprisingly) but there is often a twist that turns the simple daily rituals to downright bizarre affairs. In sixteen minutes, Food shows people who turn into machines, hungry diners devouring their clothes, and various kinds of gourmands digging into their own body-parts. So yeah, there’s a lot going on…

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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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