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…

Continue reading “Voyage to the End of the Universe (Ikarie XB-1) – Jindřich Polák, 1963”

The Teacher (Učitelka) – Jan Hřebejk, 2016

How does an oppressive regime empower individuals who are willing to toe the line? It’s a question that director Jan Hřebejk and his regular screenwriter Petr Jarchovský (Cosy Dens, Divided We Fall) tackle with the efficiency of a 90s psycho thriller in The Teacher. The answers are chilling and, while the final shot may be a little glib, the film offers plenty of food for thought.

The story opens in 1983 in a classroom in Bratislava. Right away we can see that all is not well – the new teacher Ms. Drazdechová (Zuzana Mauréry) asks her students to introduce themselves. Fairly standard procedure, but she is more interested in what their parents do for a living…

Continue reading “The Teacher (Učitelka) – Jan Hřebejk, 2016”

Gangster Ka: Afričan (2015) – Jan Pachl

In last week’s review of Gangster Ka, the first instalment of Jan Pachl’s two-part crime thriller, I signed off hoping that the second chapter would do a Godfather: Part II and improve on the original. I meant it jokingly, but against all the odds Gangster Ka: Afričan bears out that comparison. Not in terms of craft, themes or quality, of course, but in the sense that it expands on the groundwork laid out by the first film, broadens the canvas and gives the characters more room to breathe. And it certainly makes for a far more entertaining movie…

Continue reading “Gangster Ka: Afričan (2015) – Jan Pachl”

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…

Continue reading “Gangster Ka (2015) – Jan Pachl”

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…

Continue reading “I Enjoy the World with You (S tebou mě baví svět) – Marie Poledňáková, 1982”

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?

Continue reading “2Grapes (2Bobule) – Vlad Lanné, 2009”

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…

Continue reading “Beauty and the Beast (Panna a Netvor) – Juraj Herz, 1978”

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…

Continue reading “Intimate Lighting (Intimní osvetlení)- Ivan Passer, 1965”

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…

Continue reading “All My Good Countrymen (Všichni dobří rodáci) – Vojtěch Jasný, 1968”

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…

Continue reading “Food (Jídlo) – Jan Švankmajer, 1992”