Empties (Vratné lahve) – Jan Svěrák, 2007

Back when I was completely skint (as opposed to just moderately skint nowadays), bottle returns were a lifesaver just before payday. With a 3kc deposit coming back on every bottle, you could fund another evening’s beer with a moderate stack of empties!

Now, most supermarket chains in the Czech Republic have moved across to automated deposit machines. They lack the personal touch of handing over your bottles through a little window to a person standing in the gloom of the shop’s stockroom, shuffling empties into crates and handing over handwritten tickets for the amount you could deduct from your next purchase. Some smaller stores still have bottle return windows, but it is clear that it’s a dying profession.

Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák, the crack father and son team behind popular hits like The Elementary School and Kolya, have often made films touched with nostalgia. They join forces once again for Empties (Vratné lahve), a compassionate and grown-up comedy-drama that largely revolves around a man finding a new lease of life when he gets one of these endangered jobs, working the bottle returns window at his local supermarket…

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Kajínek – Petr Jákl, 2010

In May 2017 Jiří Kajínek, a gangster, robber and hardman, was released from prison after serving 23 years of two life sentences, pardoned by President Zeman. During that time he became something of a folk hero in the Czech Republic. Sent down for the brutal killing of a businessman and his bodyguard, doubts persisted about his case, with over half of Czechs believing he was wrongfully accused.

Petr Jákl’s 2010 crime saga is a pulpy retelling of Kajínek’s struggles, including his infamous breakout from Mirov prison, known as the “Czech Alcatraz”. Former stuntman Jákl directs the film like a man setting himself alight and flinging himself down a flight of stairs. He’s used to making situations exciting, I guess, and has no qualms about cramming just about every thriller trope there is into his movie, trying to pump as much drama as he can into each scene. It’s a heady mix of prison breakout movie, legal drama and conspiracy thriller, and it’s got the lot – sadistic screws, transparently corrupt bad guys, tense escape scenes, and bursts of gory violence…

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The Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek) – Jiří Menzel, 1984

In The Snowdrop Festival (Slavnosti sněženek) Jiří Menzel returns to the well to make another gentle comedy featuring his favourite things: the works of Bohumil Hrabal, Rudolf Hrušínský, the idyllic Czech countryside, and the shenanigans of quarrelsome but essentially good-hearted village folk.

As with many of Menzel’s films in a similar vein (Capricious Summer, My Sweet Little Village, Seclusion Near a Forest) the plot is slight – more a comic panorama than a conventional narrative, as Vincent Canby of the New York Times kindly put it. The pacing of The Snowdrop Festival is relaxed even by Menzel’s standards, with the film apparently starting before anyone in it has noticed…

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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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Loves of a Blonde (Lásky jedné plavovlásky) – Miloš Forman, 1965

Loves of a Blonde 1

Andula (Hana Brejchová) works in a shoe factory in a small town where, thanks to inept state planning, women outnumber men by 16 to 1. She shares a dorm in a dreary hostel with several other women of her age, and despite the odds has a good-looking boyfriend called Tonda. He’s bought her a ring and told her the stone in it is a diamond. She wants to believe it.

Loves of a Blonde was Miloš Forman’s sophomore effort after Black Peter (Černý Petr) and is a key film of the Czech New Wave. The title may well be ironic. While Andula certainly seems to have no trouble attracting the attention of the opposite sex, the men in her life don’t seem even remotely capable of giving her the relationship she needs. She is quite worldly compared to some of her friends, but still dreams of love and romance – we can tell that from the opening scene, where she is cuddled up in bed with one of her friends cooing over the ring.

Tonda, despite his respectable portrait pic, turns out to be an aggressive, possessive moron and the other guys in the movie aren’t much better. At a village dance, Andula and two friends are approached by three sleazy middle-aged soldiers who are stationed nearby. Their idea of wooing the girls is to get them drunk and take them for a quick knee-trembler in the woods nearby…

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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 Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko) – Miloš Forman, 1967

Miloš Forman’s last Czech film, The Firemen’s Ball, starts off as a lighthearted farce. By the time the film reaches its masterful third act, it has become a tragicomedy of tremendous allegorical power.

It can be seen in numerous ways. A literal reading got Forman in hot water with real fire crews up and down the land, who saw it as an attack on their honour and integrity, resulting in Forman touring the country to make amends. You could interpret it as an indictment of human foibles and corruptibility; a satire on corporate groupthink; or a stealth condemnation of the Communist system. The Czechoslovakian Communist party certainly saw it as the latter, resulting in the film being “banned forever”…

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