Men in Hope (Muži v naději) – Jiří Vejdělek, 2011

As Ronan Keating, that perennial purveyor of pop pap, once sang: “Life is a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it” – that’s the happy-go-lucky ethos of Men in Hope‘s Rudolf (Bolek Polívka), an ageing lothario and Prague cabbie with 138 extra-marital affairs under his belt. He even had a very movie-land former career as an international rollercoaster designer, providing him ample opportunity to cheat on his wife, and gives us a handy metaphor for his attitude towards relationships. As a man who spent his life building fairground thrill rides, he knows all about the twists, turns, ups, downs and loop-the-loops that only an adulterous lifestyle can offer.

Rudolf reasons that a well-timed affair can save a relationship. He prides himself on never getting caught in over 35 years of marriage to his wife, Marta (Simona Stašová), and she benefits too. Having a series of flings with much younger women gives him a little extra energy when it’s time to perform his husbandly duties at home.

This philosophy is met with mild disapproval by Ondřej (Jiří Macháček), Rudolf’s downcast, browbeaten son-in-law, a former accountant who runs a failing restaurant with his frosty wife Alice (Petra Hřebíčková). Their marriage is stuck in a loveless rut, but Alice wants another baby and times their intimate moments accordingly. This puts pressure on Ondřej to come up with the goods as he worries about his fertility.

Things change when Ondřej meets Rudolf’s latest date, Šarlota (Vica Kerekes), a curvy red-headed bombshell who has been doing community service as penitence for dancing naked in a fountain. She has a special way of putting a smile on a guy’s face, and despite his misgivings, Ondřej can’t help but brighten up in her presence.

Before we know it, Šarlota tracks Ondřej down to his customer-free restaurant and starts an affair with him. Cheating on his wife peps Ondra up – he suddenly starts taking pride in his business, showing a little flair in the kitchen, as well as finding a bit more va-va-voom in the bedroom. Rudolf’s philosophy seems to be paying dividends when a sudden tragic event changes his point of view…

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Insect (Hmyz) – Jan Švankmajer, 2018

Once on a family holiday, we were walking around the side streets of a small Welsh town when we stumbled upon an old bric-a-brac shop that was closed for many years. Among the dusty collection of forlorn objects in the window display sat a vintage doll with braided hair, a straw hat, and a yellowed cotton dress. Her cheeks were webbed with tiny cracks and one of her eyes was missing. With her remaining eye, she gazed out across the universe like a martyr in a medieval painting. A huge dead spider lay curled up in her lap.

That image really troubled my childhood imagination, filled me with a terrible sense of nausea. It is the same feeling I got years later when I first saw Jan Švankmajer’s Jabberwocky, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. His use of musty found objects in his animation, including dolls like the one sitting in that shop window years ago, disturbs me to this day.

Strangely I consider this a good thing, and with this in mind, I thought I’d check out Švankmajer’s final film, Insects. The blurb states that it is based on the play Pictures from the Insects’ Life by Karel and Josef Čapek, although that is a little misleading. The film finds Švankmajer in a playful mood, seemingly determined to do everything apart from shoot a straightforward adaptation of the satirical work.

After a cold open where we see a middle-aged man dressed in bug wings and goggles hurrying along the street, Švankmajer appears before the camera himself to provide a foreword for his new feature. The brothers Čapek wrote the play in 1924 while Hitler was sitting in a pub scheming his terrible schemes and Lenin was building his first gulags. Meanwhile, the Czechs and Slovaks were enjoying their newly founded republic, and people found the Čapek’s play a bit too pessimistic for the times. It was sheer youthful misanthropy, he tells us, and only gained greater relevance as the momentous events of the 20th century unfolded. 

All very interesting, you might think, and this foreword certainly whetted my appetite for the adaptation that was to follow. However, that is when Švankmajer goes deliberately off-script, flunking his lines and warning us of the chaos to follow…

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Spindl (Špindl) – Milan Cieslar, 2017

I’ve reviewed quite a few older classics recently, so this week I decided to play Random Czech Movie Roulette with some of the newer content on Netflix. I landed on Milan Cieslar’s “romantic comedy” Špindl

Oh dear.

Well, I said from the beginning that my blog would cover all Czech movies, including the bad ones, so here goes…

Anna Polívková stars as Katka, a sad sack singleton in her mid-thirties (something of a recurring role for her) who hates her job and dreams of one day finding Mr Right. I feel a bit sorry for Polívková. Firstly, she is following in the footsteps of her father, Bolek Polívka, one of the greatest living Czech actors. Secondly, she keeps finding herself in lame sex comedies like Špindl and Holiday Makers, or playing second banana to her illustrious dad in terrible sequels like The Inheritance 2. I’m still getting over the scene in Holiday Makers where she lets a 13-year-old boy grope her breasts to help “cure” him of his suspected homosexuality.

Anyway, Katka is down in the dumps and sharing her woes with her two sisters – worldly, tattooed artist Magda (Anita Krausová) and happy-go-lucky model Eliška (Kateřina Klausová). Eliška has a surprise to cheer her up. She has paid for three all-inclusive tickets to the mountain resort of Špindlerův Mlýn for a week of skiing, boozing and picking up guys. Who knows? Maybe one of them could be the Mr Right Katka is hoping for…

Also on his way to the mountains is Tonda (David Gránský), a young musician joining the resort’s resident band headed by Mrkvička, a slovenly middle-aged rocker played by Jakub Kohák, the Czech Republic’s hairiest living celebrity. Tonda hopes that the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle will improve his chances with the ladies, and his new bandmates are all too happy to help out.

On arrival in the resort, the girls meet Lukáš (Roman Blumaier), supposedly the hotel owner whose welcoming spiel announces “Americans have Las Vegas; Czechs have Špindl” – promising a week of fun and frolics that they won’t need to take home with them unless they really want to. Straight away, things take a turn for the worst. The swanky ski lodge Eliška reserved has double-booked, so they have to stay at the shabby Three Mountains hotel nearby instead.


It’s a creaky old place with peeling wallpaper, paper-thin walls and nudie photos on the shared bathroom wall. Despite the setback, they decide to make a go of it and find that they must share the lodgings with the cheerfully inappropriate older couple in the next room and Tonda’s raucous band.


The next hour creeps by with a mixture of pitiful slapstick (Katka has about 700 skiing accidents), awkward gross-out humour (Eliška walks in on an old man masturbating to some vintage porn) and cringe-inducing sexual liaisons (Katka’s ill-advised date with slimy Lukáš had me watching through my fingers like it was a horror movie).

It’s all so painfully weak. It makes the unholy trinity of Michal Viewegh adaptations – Holiday Makers, From Subway with Love, and Angels of Everyday – seem like comedy classics in comparison. At least those movies had a little energy and were strangely entertaining despite their crass sexual politics. Špindl starts weak, with Polívková’s half-hearted Bridget Jones-style voice-over and Chinaski’s weak pop-rock tunes on the soundtrack, and gets progressively weaker as it goes along.

To make matters worse, it is also one of those films that thinks it’s clever by making copious references to much better movies. It has the unfortunate effect of making you wish you were watching those movies instead. Marek Vašut pops up for a scene to quote his sleazy role in From Subway with Love. The cutesy earworm “Sladké mámení” from the snowbound family classic I Enjoy the World with You gets two renditions in the space of five minutes. Later, we get a bizarre Jurassic Park reference when Tonda is chased through a hotel kitchen by a sexually frustrated older woman.

More depressing still is the film’s attitude towards sexual relationships. Like those Viewegh movies, neither sex comes off well. Špindl depicts blokes as scoundrels and cheats who are only after one thing, modern cavemen who can’t make it through five minutes without crudely hitting on a member of the opposite sex. The women are always desperate singles whose brains can’t function properly without a man’s attention, and are willing to sink to their level in the dwindling hope of finding “Mr Right”. When Mr Right finally shows up for Katka, the romantic element comes as an afterthought, in the mid-credit scenes, just before a short skit where a man sprinkles his crab-infested pubes on another guy’s head (spoiler alert). It’s all so tawdry and cynical. 

The film’s saving grace is the three performances by Polívková, Krausová and Klausová, who gamely struggle with the unfunny material and somehow emerge with a little dignity intact. Polívková seems like she could be good with a decent script, but so far, I’ve only seen her in terrible movies. I can’t figure out whether she is a genuinely sympathetic screen presence or a screen presence in need of genuine sympathy.

I usually avoid saying people shouldn’t watch a movie because everyone should make up their own minds. Yet Špindl is a romantic comedy so totally lacking both romance and laughs, leaving you with a big empty nihilistic void of a movie. So I’ll conclude by saying this: watch it if you want, but it might put you off sex, skiing and human interactions for a few months at least.

***

Špindl is showing on Czech Netflix at the time of writing. This article was first published by the Prague Daily Monitor.

Waiter, Scarper! (Vrchní, prchni!) – Ladislav Smoljak, 1981

According to a survey conducted in the late 2000s, married Czechs are almost twice as likely to have an affair than their counterparts in the USA. A large number of those interviewed also believe that extramarital dalliances are just the natural way of things.

The Czech Republic is a comparatively atheistic nation, which may be a contributory factor – many Czechs don’t have the moralistic religious angle to keep them on the straight and narrow. This permissive attitude is reflected in Czech movies, where philandering husbands and cheating wives are often portrayed unapologetically, without the finger-wagging subtexts that often haunt affairs in the mainstream cinema of English-speaking countries.

One such adulterous protagonist can be found in Ladislav Smoljak’s Waiter, Scarper! Josef Abrhám plays Dalibor Vrána, a hapless bookshop manager who is pushing forty, on his third marriage, and totally skint thanks to alimony payments. Vrána’s problem is that he is simply incapable of keeping it in his pants when confronted with a member of the opposite sex. He is so incorrigible that when it comes to choosing a new female assistant to replace the one he got pregnant, he picks the homeliest girl available to reduce the risk of pouncing on her…

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National Street (Národní třída) – Štěpán Altrichter, 2019

Never drink in a pub with a flat roof, or so the joke goes back in the UK. It refers to the type of dismal drinking establishments that sprang up on post-war housing estates, where you might encounter all sorts of dodgy characters, addicts and psychos. The same goes in the Czech Republic, too – you might run into a nutter like Vandam (Hynek Čermák) in Štěpán Altrichter’s National Street.

Vandam is the resident hard man of the drab Severka pub in a southern Prague project. They call him Vandam because he can do 200 push-ups, just like his VHS hero, Jean-Claude Van Damme. With his skinhead, stocky build and menacing brow, it’s no surprise to find out he has racist and homophobic views and doesn’t mind sharing them. He wants everyone to know he’s a proper fighter. “Peace is just the intermission between wars,” he growls on his voice over, with the attitude of a man who views life as a long series of battles.  He is also known to the other denizens of the pub as a national hero, the man who sparked the Velvet Revolution by throwing the first punch…

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Intimate Lighting (Intimní osvětlení) – Ivan Passer, 1965

Ivan Passer Intimate Lighting

I recently moved from Brno to a small village of about 500 people, which is something I thought I’d never do. I’ve always loved the city and the countryside freaks me out. Sometimes I get spooked when I’m out trudging the lanes and wood trying to fill in the blanks around me – it is the absence of people that makes it so unnerving. Occasionally I’ll stumble upon a cross or a shrine set starkly against a frozen cornfield or a big empty sky, and it seems more imposing than the huge churches and cathedrals that get a little lost in the hustle and bustle of city life.

Out in the countryside, it feels like mankind has sprouted out of the earth along with their dwellings over the millennia. In the dark months of winter, the village air is full of woodsmoke. It’s the first time I have really thought about the fact that people grow trees just to chop them down and burn them to keep warm. Similarly, some village folk grow their own creatures to kill, disembowel and eat. It all seems a bit medieval after a lifetime of central heating and buying pre-murdered supermarket chickens in the same way I might choose an apple, checking for size, shape and blemishes before dropping one into my basket.

Buy your copy of Intimate Lighting from Amazon HERE

These observations bring me, in a roundabout way, to Intimate Lighting. The divide between city and the village seems more sharply felt in the Czech Republic than back home in the UK, and many Czech films revolve around this dichotomy. One of the aspects I enjoyed most about Passer’s mini-masterpiece is how it explores this theme in such a hushed, minutely detailed way…

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Happy End (Šťastný konec) – Oldřich Lipský, 1966

At the very least it will put a big dumb grin on your face, followed by a slight frown as you gaze into the middle distance trying to figure out whether it all adds up or not. Happy End sure beats the hell out of last year’s joyless Tenet, although when it comes to telling a story backwards, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of Memento or Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. Just seeing the bravura way in which Oldřich Lipský flourishes the reverse chronology trick is worth your time alone. Yet it is a stunt that offers a breezy blast of comic relief while exploring the classics of the Czech New Wave. Ultimately that is all Happy End is – a stunt, but a clever and often hilarious one.

As brilliantly as Lipský pulls it off, it does get a little tiring towards the end – or should I say the beginning? My brain kept trying to flip the backwards conversations around to track their normal course, and it made my head hurt after a while. The popular director of quirky classics like Lemonade Joe and Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet had the sense to keep it short and sweet. Happy End clocks in at just 71 minutes and that is definitely a good thing.

Rounding out the main cast is Josef Abrhám as the shameless seducer, Mr Birdie, and formidable comic actress Helena Růžičková as our hero’s long-lost love. She has an innate knack for comic timing reminiscent of Madeline Kahn in those great Lipský-esque American comedies of around the same era – Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and What’s Up Doc? Jaroslava Obermaierová is a good foil for Menšík as his radiant, fragile wife Julie, gliding through the slapstick elements with grace intact, looking like she’s enjoying herself as much as the audience…

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One Hand Can’t Clap (Jedna ruka netleská) – David Ondříček, 2003

After watching the deadly serious In the Shadow recently, I decided to go back and check out one of David Ondříček’s earlier, funnier ones and was pleasantly wrong-footed by One Hand Can’t Clap. It is an offbeat crime comedy that gets steadily weirder and sillier as it goes on, tempering the zaniness with the same kind of deadpan fatalism that was such a big feature of his previous hit, Loners.

Ondříček brought many of his Loners stars and crew along for this feature, and the continuity shows – the excellent cast seem completely at ease and totally onboard with the wacky material, written by the director with his two leads, Jiří Macháček and Ivan Trojan.

Macháček plays Standa, a good-natured but gullible loser who is talked into taking the fall after he is busted smuggling a lorry load of endangered birds. After a spell in prison and keeping shtum about the other parties involved in the crime, he meets up with his former boss Zdeněk (Ivan Trojan), the sinister owner of a swish vegetarian restaurant who has heinous plans for his illicit live deliveries. Zdeněk plans to compensate Standa for his time spent behind bars but the handoff is screwed up by Ondřej (Marek Taclík), a hapless store security guard who thinks he’s some kind of badass super cop.

Ondřej and Standa have become fast friends after they were both outwitted (it doesn’t take much) while trying to catch a shoplifter, and Ondřej’s efforts to help his newfound pal out usually end up making things much, much worse. After Standa is rescued from a near-drowning by two shroom-hunting women, he is convinced that he must bring Zdeněk to justice.

After our two halfwit heroes join forces with the girls, Andrea and Martina (Kristina Lukešová and Isabela Bencová), the clueless foursome go on an undercover caper in Zdeněk’s restaurant to unravel the mystery of the illegal rare animals…

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The Good Soldier Švejk (Dobrý voják Švejk) – Karel Steklý, 1956

I once knew an indestructible drunk who had a natural talent for causing mischief, then watching the mayhem unfold with a look of cherubic innocence on his face. I shared a grotty Barrandov flat with him for a while. The place was pretty dismal so we spent most of our waking hours in the pub, where I often ended up scrambling to unravel his mess while he sat there with his eyes spinning in opposite directions, chuckling to himself.

It was around this time that I first tried reading The Good Soldier Švejk. There was a remarkable facial similarity between my chaotic flatmate and the novel’s author, Jaroslav Hašek, himself a noted pub denizen, who in turn looked a little like the bottle-nosed character in Josef Lada’s famous illustrations from the book. Over time I conflated the three, so now years later I feel like I once lived with the good soldier himself.

Buy your copy of The Good Soldier Svejk from Amazon HERE

It has taken me almost one hundred posts on Czech Film Review to pluck up the courage to write something about Karel Steklý’s 1956 adaptation, perhaps the most well-known film version of the novel. It’s a daunting task – Švejk is a cultural icon in his home country and one of the most successful Czech exports, with Hašek’s novel translated into over 50 languages. There are dozens -if not hundreds – of beer halls and restaurants across the country bearing his name, and his image is common from the gift shops of Prague to the farmer’s pub in the small Moravian village where I recently moved. The word “Švejk” has also become a catch-all for willfully incompetent, subversive behaviour, commonly linked with the type of passive resistance that the Czechs have relied on to endure the numerous wars and foreign occupations of the last few centuries…

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Forbidden Dreams (Smrt krásných srnců) – Karel Kachyna, 1987

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Director Karel Kachyna (The Ear) gets his metaphors in early in Forbidden Dreams, otherwise known by its more evocative Czech title, Smrt krásných srnců (The Death of Beautiful Deer). Mr Popper (Karel Heřmánek), a Jewish vacuum cleaner salesman who can’t stop hopping into bed with his female customers, is out fishing in the countryside with his two eldest sons. Through his binoculars, he spots a herd of deer and he is struck by their beauty – but also spies danger threatening in the form of a hunting dog bearing down on the innocent creatures. 

The dog belongs to their grumpy uncle Karel (Rudolf Hrušínský), who loves getting his teeth into some freshly savaged venison. Mr Popper regards killing a deer as almost as bad as killing a human. Popper has no qualms about catching and eating fish, however, and his passion for carp is intertwined with his fortunes throughout the film.

The setting is pre-war Czechoslovakia, and Mr Popper is introduced as a resourceful chancer with a taste for the good life, although those tastes often run him into trouble. He is skint and the family is in debt to the butcher, grocer and the pub, but Popper thinks the latest Electrolux model he receives from Head Office in Prague will pretty much sell itself.

Buy your copy of Forbidden Dreams from Amazon HERE

Plying his trade in the villages, however, he finds that the locals aren’t too impressed with his new-fangled device. His luck changes when he rescues a drowning man with the help of the cable from one of his vacuum cleaners. The man turns out to be a rich benefactor, who buys a few units out of gratitude and throws a party so Popper can sell some more hoovers to his wealthy friends.

Suddenly flush, Popper starts splashing money around, treating the family and sending his sons for boxing lessons with a former champ. Life is good. Now bursting with confidence, Popper cooks up a variety of lucrative schemes to keep the cash rolling in.

Dark days lay ahead, though, as Czechoslovakia falls to the Nazis. Jewish salesmen aren’t in much demand in the protectorate and Popper suddenly finds himself out of work. He retreats to the countryside to sit out the war and live off his carp pond, but is soon driven to destitution by the new regime and must find ever-more risky ways to provide for his family…

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