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.

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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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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