Owners (Vlastníci) – Jiří Havelka (2019)

Written and directed by Jiří Havelka, based on his own award-winning stage play, Vlastníci presents us with a curious cast of characters, all of whom own apartments in the same block somewhere in Prague, and charts their progress as they attempt to tolerate each others’ presence long enough to take some important decisions about the building’s future. The film took home three Czech Lions and two Czech Film Critics’ Awards, and with fine performances from the leading cast, sharp dialogue, and painfully relevant political overtones, it’s not difficult to see why.

The action all takes place in one room, recalling Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic 12 Angry Men – and these owners are certainly angry. Over the course of the film, the tension that hangs close around the earliest scenes is released explosively, as slight disagreements turn into raging arguments, and no stone in any of the owners’ lives is left unturned as they seek to blame and criticise each other for sins past and present, real and perceived. And like in Lumet’s film, the fact that the characters can’t escape means that neither can the viewer. We are forced to live through the conflict along with the owners, sharing their frustrations, their fury, and their offence (and it is very offensive at points)…

Continue reading “Owners (Vlastníci) – Jiří Havelka (2019)”

Something Different (O něčem jiném) — Věra Chytilová, 1963

Written and directed by avant-garde filmmaker Věra Chytilová (Daisies, The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday), Something Different tells the story of the lives of two women: Eva Bosáková, a real-life gymnast training for her final performance, and Vera (Vera Uzelacová), a fictional housewife who lives an unfulfilled life. The film presents a nuanced look into the worlds of both women as they face the daily challenges that life brings upon them.

The opening sequence features Eva performing her routine until it cuts away to reveal that Vera’s son is watching it on TV. The film then intercuts between the lives of both women as they go about their everyday life. While one might assume that Eva’s life might be more interesting than Vera’s, I found myself equally invested in both stories. A lot of Eva’s days are spent practising for her final performance, while Vera’s days are consumed by housework as she raises her son at the same time—an equally exhausting balancing act. 

Buy Something Different from Amazon HERE

Eva strives for perfection but is sometimes unsure of her own abilities, while Vera is unsatisfied with her marriage and has a hard time taking care of her hyperactive son. Her husband barely pays any attention to her and would rather spend his time reading the newspaper. He tells her he does this because he can only read it after work, to which Vera replies, “my work is never done.” He also says he’s saving money for a car, which means Vera can’t buy anything for herself. This is frustrating for her as she also spends her days working, but never receives anything in return. This leads to her having an affair with a man she meets while buying groceries…

Continue reading “Something Different (O něčem jiném) — Věra Chytilová, 1963”

Barefoot (Po strništi bos) – Jan Svěrák, 2017

Barefoot 2017 Sverak

Prequels are, by and large, one of the most pointless things in cinema. By their very nature they lack much dramatic thrust, as we already know where the story will end up. Over the past few decades, prequels have also become synonymous with major studios cashing in on profitable intellectual properties, often ruining the mystique of the original film or films. The very word “prequel” is capable of setting a certain type of Star Wars fan into a fit of rage…

In a very modest field, Barefoot (Po strništi bos) stands out as one of the better prequels available for your delectation. At first it seems like a slender prospect, arriving a full 26 years after Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák’s Oscar-nominated crowdpleaser, The Elementary School (Obecná škola). Delightful though that movie was, it favoured nostalgic, anecdotal comedy and doesn’t seem like the obvious choice for prequel treatment.

Buy Barefoot from Amazon HERE

However, if you ever wondered what the kid in The Elementary School got up to during the death throes of World War II – that is, literally a year or two before the events of the original movie – then Barefoot will answer all your burning questions…

Continue reading “Barefoot (Po strništi bos) – Jan Svěrák, 2017”

3 Seasons in Hell (3 Sezony V Pelke) – Tomás Masín, 2009

Hadek in 3 Seasons in He'll

My curriculum was packed with boring subjects when I was at school. Maths was always a chore, chemistry was just soul-crushing, and history was the biggest snooze. For three years we sat in the same brown dusty classroom full of brown dusty books, listening to the teacher drone on. He was a pale gingery man who resembled the Gestapo agent in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and always wore a brown suit that looked like it was tailored from a rest home carpet. We only ever seemed to study World War I and II, without ever finding out any of the larger context surrounding the conflicts.

It was only after I left school and started reading up on things by myself that I came to wonder: how does anyone make a subject like World War II boring? On paper, it’s like the synopsis of the greatest, most exciting war movie ever made. I realized that it wasn’t the subject that was boring, it was the teacher. It’s the way you tell ’em, I suppose.

On paper, 3 Seasons in Hell sounds like pretty suspenseful stuff. Opening in 1947 Czechoslovakia, we follow a young nonconformist poet who falls in with a Bohemian crowd, just as the Communist regime seizes control of the country and starts clamping down on intellectual and subversive activities that don’t suit their agenda. Our arrogant young hero soon finds himself in increasing danger…

Continue reading “3 Seasons in Hell (3 Sezony V Pelke) – Tomás Masín, 2009”

Diamonds of the night (Démanty noci) — Jan Němec, 1964

Based on Arnošt Lustig’s novel Darkness Has No Shadow, Jan Němec’s first full-length feature, Diamonds of the Night, is a visceral experience that shouldn’t be missed. Right from the jump, the film hooks you with an incredible sequence that follows two young boys escaping a train heading towards a concentration camp. The whole scene is shot in one continuous take as the camera closes in to capture the desperation on their faces. By this point, it’s clear that the goal is to put the viewer in the state of mind of these characters as they struggle to survive.

Buy Diamonds of the Night from Amazon HERE

This is one of those films that focuses more on providing an immersive experience for the viewers, rather than telling a straightforward narrative. And that’s apparent in its presentation. Once the boys make their way into the woods, the film intercuts between their current situation and visions of life before the war. These memories belong to Ladislav Jánsky’s character, whose perspective is the one we follow throughout the film. The scenes are made up of simple moments that seem like distant memories compared to the situation he currently finds himself in. We see images of kids sledging down a hill while laughing, mundane details of people going about their day, and the relationship he shared with his girlfriend. Now, he just wants to survive and return to the life he once knew…

Continue reading “Diamonds of the night (Démanty noci) — Jan Němec, 1964”

In Context: Jára Cimrman Lying, Sleeping (Jára Cimrman ležící, spící) – Ladislav Smoljak, 1983

Zdenek Sverak as Jara Cimrman

How do you even start with a personage the size of Jára Cimrman? I feel like I’m describing Leonardo da Vinci using nothing but Morse code printed on popsicle sticks. I’d love to just talk about the film, Jára Cimrman Lying, Sleeping but without context, it would make no sense to you. So I’ll try to give you a sliver of a fragment of an introduction to the best playwright, philosopher, skier, and teacher – Jára Cimrman.

Jára Cimrman: Cultural Icon

This man is the closest thing to a national treasure the Czechs have, and he is still very much alive in the cultural space: his more than 15 plays are still running, he has a museum in Prague’s watchtower, Petřín, and he even has an asteroid named after him (7796 Járacimrman). His biggest peak was probably the 2005 Greatest Czech competition (which happened in reaction to the 100 Greatest Britons show in the UK and across Europe). But Cimrman didn’t make it in the end. He was unrightfully disqualified for being fictional…

Continue reading “In Context: Jára Cimrman Lying, Sleeping (Jára Cimrman ležící, spící) – Ladislav Smoljak, 1983”

Cutting it Short (Postřižiny) – Jiří Menzel, 1980

Jiri Menzel Cutting it Short

It has taken two years to reach this point, but this article marks the 50th post on Czech Film Review. Since the first Czech film I saw was Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains, I thought it would be appropriate to mark the occasion by talking about another one of his films, Cutting it Short.

It’s yet another idyllic shaggy dog story based on a Bohumil Hrabal work, a rose-tinted yet ultimately kinky tale about the writer’s parents when they conceived the future literary legend. Set around the end of the First World War and shortly before the establishment of the first Czechoslovak Republic, it is a typically Menzelian joint lovingly satirizing small-town life, populated by a familiar bunch of cranks and oddballs.

Postriziny DVD

Buy Cutting it Short from Amazon HERE

The story centres on Francin (Jiří Schmitzer), an earnest accountant who has been hired by the local brewery to get their books in order and take the business to the next level. He sets up home in a spacious apartment on the brewery premises with his free-spirited wife Maryška (Magdaléna Vášáryová, who played the eponymous Marketa Lazarová). She knows the way to a Czech guy’s heart, currying favour with the board of directors by slaughtering a pig and laying on a copious meat feast…

Continue reading “Cutting it Short (Postřižiny) – Jiří Menzel, 1980”

A 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.

Case for a Rookie Hangman Blu Ray

Buy A Case for a Rookie Hangman from Amazon HERE

Jurácek also channels the works of Franz Kafka and Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which is evident in the surreal nature of the film. For instance, at the beginning of the film, Mr Gulliver loses control of his car and ends up running over a hare dressed in tiny clothes, and even finds that it had a watch in its pocket. After this bizarre incident, he finds a house that resembles the one from his childhood. But once he’s inside, he’s bombarded with memories of his youth: a girl he once loved who drowned, an old friend who also died, a woman who had a part in his sexual awakening, and many more images from his past…

Continue reading “A Case for a Rookie Hangman (Případ pro začínajícího kata)  –  Pavel Juráček, 1970”

Ghoul (2015) – Petr Jákl

Found Footage Horror "Ghoul"

This is the blurb on Netflix for Petr Jákl’s Ghoul:

“Three filmmakers investigating a story about cannibalism during a 1932 famine find themselves trapped in a haunted house after conducting a seance.”

Holy shit, I thought, this movie has it all… cannibalism! a haunted house! Seances! Directed by the action-packed former stuntman who gave us the hugely enjoyable Kajinek! How could I refuse?

Buy Ghoul from Amazon HERE

Unfortunately, despite its lurid premise, Ghoul doesn’t hit the spot quite as well. Jákl’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach that worked so well in his wrongly accused hardman thriller works to the detriment of this by-the-numbers found-footage horror, bogging the movie down with evermore plot when we should be getting to the scares…

Continue reading “Ghoul (2015) – Petr Jákl”

Czechoslovak Film Review: The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze) – Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965

The Shop on Main Street

“Of all my films, The Shop on Main Street touches me most closely. Elmar Klos and I usually work as equal partners, but in this case he left me a free hand. He knows that I am not thinking of the fate of all the six million tortured Jews, but that my work is shaped by the fate of my father, my friends’ fathers, mothers of those near to me and by people whom I have known. I am not interested in the outer trappings—figures, statements, generalizations. I want to make emotive films…”

– Ján Kadár, New York Herald Tribune, Jan 23 1966

With any major catastrophe resulting in the loss of human life, I often find it difficult to get my head around the numbers. Sometimes incidental details can help visualize the size of the tragedy. For example, after I first watched The Shop on Main Street and was pondering Kadár’s quote above, the official Coronavirus death toll in the UK had just passed 30,000. That’s roughly a capacity crowd at Portman Road in Ipswich, where I was a season ticket holder for ten years. So now I only had to imagine a packed stadium suddenly silenced forever to get to grips with the scale of the public health disaster/scandal in my country.

But six million? A quick Google search tells me that is approximately the entire population of Turkmenistan, which doesn’t really help comprehend the vastness of the Holocaust. And that is the brilliance of The Shop on Main Street – better than anything else I’ve seen on the subject, it narrows the focus down to two individuals and makes us feel personally involved in the horror of their circumstances. The 55-year-old Academy Award winner hit me hard, feeling as fresh and vital as any other film I’ve seen about the Holocaust in recent years.

Buy The Shop on Main Street from Amazon HERE

The Shop on Main Street wears its flawed greatness lightly, starting with a comedic tone and growing darker, building a sense of dread until its harrowing conclusion. And then… well, spoilers ahead: I’ll talk about that ending later…

Continue reading “Czechoslovak Film Review: The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze) – Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965”