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?

Buy Ikarie XB-1 on Amazon here

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 (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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Indie Profiles: Valida Baba

Filmmaker Valida Baba

Valida Baba is an Azeri filmmaker who has called Prague her home for the past eight years. She uses photography, poetry and dance in her short experimental films to explore her ideas about human relationships and existence. I spoke to her about her work, her influences and her experiences so far in the Czech capital.

Hey, so thanks for making time to speak with me! First off, can you tell me about your first impressions of Prague?

Well, when I was first accepted at FAMU to study photography, I didn’t even know that it was so famous for film and photo! But when I first arrived at the airport I got the feeling of coming home. Of course, Azerbaijan is my home too, but even when I travel abroad now I get the sense of coming home when I return to Prague, and it is such a deep feeling for me, you know?

How does Azerbaijan compare to the Czech Republic culturally?

They are not too similar culturally, because Azeri culture is more like Turkish. However, because we were also part of the Soviet Union we have Russian as a second language, so there are some Slavic influences there.

Prague has become almost synonymous with Hollywood blockbusters over the last few decades, but how does the city treat an indie filmmaker working on smaller projects?

When I was studying at FAMU I could see that there are lots of opportunities to make films here. However, there was always some divide between the Czech community and the foreign community, and I was so introverted to begin with that I found it hard to communicate. I love making films but it felt like there was a border I needed to cross before I could start working with people, which is why I originally did it independently. Then I realised that it’s hard to make a film by yourself, and much easier when you have a team of like-minded people all working towards one goal.

Generally, Czech people are open and willing to collaborate if you are willing to open up to them, so it was my problem to solve, how to be more outgoing with them. Now there are many female film producers coming through who are looking to work with female directors, so it’s easier to start working on a project and take it in the direction to want…

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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.

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.

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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All My Good Countrymen (Všichni dobří rodáci) – Vojtěch Jasný, 1968

All My Good Countrymen cinematography

When people find out that I write about Czech movies, one of the questions they sometimes ask is: why are so many Czech films about the Communist era?

The example I always use is this: I’m from England, and such a large part of our national identity is defined by World War II, which lasted six years. Three iconic events from the conflict – Dunkirk, the Blitz, and the Battle of Britain – are still touchstones in our collective conscience and influence how we think of ourselves as a people. Even seventy-odd years later, nostalgia for the war played a part in the campaign to leave the European Union.

And, of course, we’re still making successful movies about it.

Czechoslovakia, by comparison, spent over forty years in the clutches of a Communist regime, only to regain independence relatively recently. It’s little wonder that the period still exerts such a powerful hold on the Czech national psyche and is ingrained so deeply in the country’s culture. Not only that, but forty years is a long time, so even films that aren’t directly about it still have life under communism very present as background scenery. We can probably expect Czech cinema to go on exploring those decades of subjugation for many years to come…

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Return of the Prodigal Son (Návrat ztraceného syna) — Evald Schorm, 1967

Released in 1967 and directed by Evald Schorm, Return of the Prodigal Son centres around the mental health of an engineer named Jan (Jan Kacer) as he stays in a psychiatric ward following a suicide attempt. The film begins with a brief disclaimer: “The film you are about to see — in its plot, characters and setting — bears no resemblance to reality. It is only a play in which everything is distorted and exaggerated. Life isn’t like this.” Of course, this is meant to be a very tongue-in-cheek statement seeing as how the film is very much representing the existential dilemmas found in real life…

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Zelary (Želary) – Ondřej Trojan, 2003

As sturdy and dependable as its rugged leading man, György Cserhalmi, Želary is a classy wartime romantic drama that scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2004. While the story suffers from over-familiarity, it earns its emotional payoff thanks to strong performances by an excellent cast and thoughtful direction by Ondřej Trojan.

The film opens in 1940s Nazi-occupied Prague as dapper surgeon Richard (Trojan) and his nurse/lover Eliška (Anna Geislerová) respond to an emergency call to save a seriously injured man. The patient requires an urgent transfusion and Eliška unquestioningly gives the much-needed blood…

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