Jan Werich’s Fimfárum (Fimfárum Jana Wericha) – Vlasta Pospíšilová and Aurel Klimt, 2002

Fimfarum Jana Werich
One ČSFD (Czech IMDb) reviewer reports that the lesson they learned from watching Fimfárum Jana Wericha is the following: if you’re a drunk unable to provide for your family or take care of your farm, offer your son to the devil and then use a homeless woman to get him back. And they’re not even reading anything into it. 
 

Fimfárum is one of those strange collections of stories that don’t like simple answers in life. The original book, written and later recorded on tape by Jan Werich in the 1960s, included 21 fairy tales, most of which are absurd or downright bizarre. The 2002 film adaptation didn’t have an easy task translating the light humour, ambiguous moral messages, and beautiful use of the Czech language to the big screen, but they nailed it!

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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.

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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Case for a Rookie Hangman (Případ pro začínajícího kata)  –  Pavel Juráček, 1970

Starting off as a screenwriter for some of the most notable films in the Czech New Wave, Pavel Jurácek (Daisies) eventually transitioned into the role of director and went on to contribute to the movement by directing his own films. His last film, Case for a Rookie Hangman, was a surreal experience, to say the least.

From the start of the film, it’s no secret that Jurácek was inspired by the works of Jonathan Swift, specifically Gulliver’s Travels. He even apologizes beforehand in the film’s opening credits: “If Swift should turn in his grave on account of this film, I beg his compatriots for forgiveness.” This interpretation of the novel finds Lemuel Gulliver (Lubomír Kostelka) in a strange place with bizarre customs that satirize life in Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime…

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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…

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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.

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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Alice (Něco z Alenky) – Jan Švankmajer, 1988

Alice 1

Once upon a time, I was so little that I could stand on the back of my nan’s sofa and survey the kingdom all around me. That summit seemed very high, and I was still small enough for her living room to be divided into several distinct regions. In the hazy distance opposite me (and it was hazy because my nan was a sixty-a-day woman) was the cliff edge of the mantlepiece. There lived regal ladies and gentlemen dressed in the fashions of the French court, and each of them bore the scars of terrible tumbles into the precipice below. My nan was not a fussy person, and each time one of them got knocked off and broken on the hearth, she would carelessly stick them back together with her trusty tube of Uhu. The figurines looked like Frankenstein creations, with arms, legs and heads reattached with bobbly contusions of sinister yellow glue.

Away to the far left, through the chasm between a sagging armchair and my nan’s monolithic rented telly, was a little-visited glade beneath the large bay window, where a wooden table contained the remnants of a long-defunct record player. On the far right of the room was my nan’s armchair, where she smoked, watched TV, read Mills and Boon paperbacks and idled away the hours doing word search puzzles. Between her armchair and the mantlepiece was a dark cabinet where she kept her most prized ornaments, glassware and keepsakes. Then, far below me, was the plateau of her coffee table. I was so tiny that I could make a den of it by propping mail-order catalogues against the shelf underneath and crawling inside…

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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.

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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The Girl on a Broomstick (Dívka na koštěti) – Václav Vorlíček, 1972

If you imagine Sabrina the Teenage Witch with a dash of Harry Potter thrown in, you’ll get a pretty good idea what to expect from this bright and breezy fantasy comedy. Petra Černocká plays Saxana, a talented but bored young witch who is sentenced to 300 years in detention for screwing up in her shape-shifting classes. With the assistance of the school janitor and retired vampire, (I’m not sure vampirism works like that either, but let’s go with it), Saxana transforms herself into an owl and visits the world of people.

The spell is shortlived, though, and unless she can find something called “Hag’s Ear” within 44 hours, she will have to return to witch school and face the consequences for her bad behaviour. While still in owl form, she’s captured by a zookeeper and taken home. There she reverts to her normal form, much to the surprise of the keeper’s son, Honza (Jan Hrušínský). They quickly become friends, setting the stage for all manner of magical shenanigans – usually involving Saxana turning herself or other people into some kind of animal.

The Girl on a Broomstick is endearingly cheerful throughout and Černocká, a singer who also provided the ridiculously catchy theme tune, is an appealing lead. She plays Saxana with the right mix of wide-eyed innocence and sassiness, and her performance has dated better than some of the others. Otherwise, much of the acting is pretty panto-level stuff, especially among Saxana’s classmates and teachers at school. Helena Ruzicková (The Slunce, Seno… trilogy) has a cameo as Saxana’s roommate during her brief stay on a psychiatric ward.

The film zips along and the special effects, while primitive, are used effectively and with gusto. Although dated and very lo-fi, The Girl on a Broomstick is still capable of casting a happy spell over kids and their parents, so it’s a great pick for families with young children learning Czech. My four-year-old daughter loved it, and I won’t be terribly put out by having to watch it again with her.

A belated and poorly received sequel, Saxána a Lexikon kouzel (Little Witch on a Broomstick), arrived in 2011.

***

You can pick up a copy of The Girl on a Broomstick at Amazon. Just click on the cover art below –

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů) – Jaromil Jireš, 1970

Rapturously beautiful, disturbingly erotic, and strangely frightening, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is an intoxicating blend from director Jaromil Jireš, a key figure in the Czechoslovak New Wave. It’s a surrealist horror where reality and identity are fluid, yet the film has its own dreamlike logic where it all makes a kind of sense while you’re watching it. Then, like so many dreams, the more you try to remember on waking, the more it slips from your grasp…

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The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (Tajemství hradu v Karpatech) – Oldřich Lipský, 1981

I love old dark house movies, to the point where whenever a discussion comes up with family or friends about the prospect of building a house, I can’t help railroading the conversation into talk of secret passages, secret doors (bookcase or fireplace, I’m not picky), and of course large paintings where I can remove the portrait’s eyes and peek into the room below.

Due to this, Oldřich Lipský’s silly-funny, endlessly inventive spoof Tajemství hradu v Karpatech was a source of absolute delight for me. It’s basically like a Czech version of Murder by Death, a star-studded mystery set in – yes, an old dark house – peppered with jokes so hoary and dumb that they go all the way around the dial to becoming hilarious again. What The Mysterious Castle has over Neil Simon’s groaner-fest and other pastiches of the genre is some genuinely inspired proto-steampunk design work by legendary surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, and a visual style all of its own…

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