Once Upon a Time in Paradise (Tenkrát v ráji) – Lordan Zafranović, Peter Pálka & Dan Krzywoň

World War II has provided inspiration for movies for over 80 years now, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of incredible tales. Sometimes I wonder, though, when I see a film as weak as Once Upon a Time in Paradise, whether the well is drying up and people are starting to run out of ideas.

That may seem unfair on the source material, Josef Urban’s novel and the true story that inspired it. It sounds like rousing stuff on paper – a talented rock climber hides from the Nazis in the wilderness, evading capture for years – and maybe that is where it should have stayed. It was a similar situation with the Laurent Binet’s page-turner HHhH – an intensely gripping read that spawned two insipid film versions. Maybe not every book needs a movie adaptation.

After a Saving Private Ryan-style bookend we meet Josef Smítka (Vavřinec Hradilek, an Olympic medal-winning canoeist in his first film role) hiking in the Tatras with his best friend Heinrich (Petr Smíd). They are on their way to tackle the Gerlach Peak, the highest mountain in the range. Along the way, they spot a beautiful young woman swimming naked in an alpine lake.

Buy your copy of Once Upon a Time in Paradise from Amazon HERE

The woman turns out to be Vlasta Brázdová (Vica Kerekes), a well-known writer and accomplished climber who is married to a much older man, the possessive painter Ota (Miroslav Etzler). Josef – or Joska to his friends – is instantly smitten. When the two friends run into trouble on the mountainside, it is Vlasta who abseils to rescue them…

Continue reading “Once Upon a Time in Paradise (Tenkrát v ráji) – Lordan Zafranović, Peter Pálka & Dan Krzywoň”

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…

Continue reading “Forbidden Dreams (Smrt krásných srnců) – Karel Kachyna, 1987”

3Grapes (3Bobule) – Martin Kopp, 2020

The cinematic threequel is often a recipe for disappointment. The Jaws series had already jumped the shark before the third instalment fouled the water with its cheesy 3D money shots. Francis Ford Coppola waited 16 years before giving us a belated conclusion to The Godfather trilogy – it was an offer everyone was quite happy to refuse. Alien 3 has its defenders but it basically poured cold water over Ripley’s heroics in James Cameron’s rip-roaring second film, turning the franchise into a massive bummer.

Of course, there are some great ones too. Return of the King completed the coronation of Peter Jackson’s Award-festooned adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. On the indie circuit, Before Midnight capped off Richard Linklater’s much-loved trio of romantic walk-and-talks, while in the arthouse field Red was a magnificent conclusion to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy.

So what would happen with 3Grapes, shuffling into theatres in the summer of 2020 after a false start due to the Covid-19 pandemic, eleven years after the previous film? Would it manage to recapture the light and fluffy chemistry of the good-natured original, or maybe carry on trying to raise the stakes like its woeful sequel?

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Pupendo – Jan Hřebejk, 2003

Polivka and Holubova in Pupendo

Apart from being a familiar face in many of the Czech movies I’ve watched over the past two years, Bolek Polívka is omnipresent in my adopted hometown Brno. He stars in public service videos on the trams and peers out of billboards advertising his latest stage performances and is often spotted drinking in the bar at his theatre, Divadlo Bolka Polívky.

His ubiquity also serves director Jan Hřebejk well in his hat trick of turn-of-the-century hits: Cosy DensDivided We Fall and Pupendo.

A bittersweet comedy set in the early ’80s, Pupendo makes an entertaining companion piece to Cosy Dens. They focus on life under Communism, centred around families headed by two very different men, both physically and ideologically…

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Little Baby Jesus (Prijde letos Jezísek?) – Lenka Kny, 2013

Here is the thing about Christmas films – most of them suck.  There are very few true classics, which is why I’m really glad that Die Hard has entered the conversation over the last couple of years. Not only is it an awesome movie, but it is also very Christmassy, once you come to accept it as a legitimate choice as a Christmas flick.

I’ve yet to feel any Christmas tingles this year, so I thought I’d check out some of the Czech festive offerings on Netflix to see if any of them would put me in the mood…

First on my list was Little Baby Jesus (Prijde letos Jezísek?), a romantic comedy from Lenka Kny. As someone leaning more towards Paganism, I’m wary of movies with the word “Jesus” in the title. It is often a sign of a wholesome Christian-themed message movie, and I avoid those like I tend to avoid S&M orgies in abandoned abattoirs. I know people are into both and that’s OK – it’s just not my cup of tea, that’s all.

Buy your copy of Little Baby Jesus from Amazon HERE

So I was about to flick past it to the next film when I saw that it stars veteran Czech actors Josef Abrhám and Libuše Šafránková. The latter was amazing in Three Wishes for Cinderella four decades earlier, perhaps the country’s most famous Christmas film. Would Little Baby Jesus be another festive classic on her resume?

Not exactly, but – I hate to say it – it does have its moments…

Continue reading “Little Baby Jesus (Prijde letos Jezísek?) – Lenka Kny, 2013”

The Snake Brothers (Kobry a užovky) – Jan Prušinovský, 2015

Right from the get-go, we know Petr “Cobra” Šťastný (Kryštof Hádek) is trouble. We open with a scrolling shot of summer cottages. It is a quiet day apart from birdsong and the distant sound of someone mowing grass. Against this peaceful backdrop, we see Cobra, strutting along with purple hair, a camo jacket and a pair of bolt cutters strapped to his back. We don’t know what his situation is yet but he’s wired, a bundle of nervous energy. He then proceeds to break into a cottage, steal all the electrical goods and make off with his loot, all under the nose of an elderly neighbour.

Cobra is one half of the Snake Brothers, two guys in their thirties trying to eke out a living in Nowheresville, CZ, in Jan Prušinovský’s impressive film follow up to Sunday League. The elder Šťastný sibling is Vojtěch (Matěj Hádek, Kryštof’s real-life big brother), known as “Viper” to his friends. He’s marginally more well-balanced, in that he is capable of getting a job and living a semi-normal existence. No matter how hard he tries to get a foothold, he is held back by his disreputable younger brother, who is always getting himself into trouble with the law.

The Snake Brothers form a trio with Tomáš (Jan Hájek), Viper’s best friend. He’s a dour, frustrated mechanic and abusive husband to the irresponsible Zůza (Lucie Žáčková), who has been hanging around on maternity pay for the past eight years while bringing up their two kids.

After Viper angrily quits his job at a factory, an old school friend, Ládík (David Máj), offers him an opportunity to become a franchisee for a German company importing cheap fashion wear. Viper sees it as a chance to better his life but doesn’t have the ready cash to make a go of it. Luckily his granny (Věra Kubánková) is happy to put her house up as collateral.

Ready for business, Viper rents a unit in a shopping centre and hires Zůza as a cashier while also trying to keep Cobra away from his customers. It turns out that Ládík is using the venture to import more than just budget brand shoes. Plus the combustible combination of Cobra, Zůza and Tomáš means that trouble is never far away…

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Tiger Theory (Teorie Tygra) – Radek Bajgar, 2016

Tiger Theory review

There is an old Les Dawson joke that goes like this: I said to the chemist, “Can I have some sleeping pills for my wife?” He said, “Why?” I said, “She keeps waking up.”

That is pretty much the attitude of the main character in Tiger Theory, Radek Bajgar’s dramedy about a sixty-something who finds an unconventional way of leaving his controlling wife.

Jan Berger (Jiří Bartoška) is a veterinarian. We first meet him as performs the snip on a tomcat, much to the gratitude of its female owner. It’s a none-too-subtle metaphor for the film’s central thesis, in that most of the male characters feel emasculated by their wives. The only guy who doesn’t has a problem with his sperm and possibly gets cheated on by his free-spirited wife, implying he’s not man enough to get the job done.

The film sets out its stall early, with Berger’s wife Olga (Eliška Balzerovádelivering a lecture to a group of students about the life expectancy of men. They drink more, smoke more and eat unhealthily, all of which affects their longevity. And it is the woman’s lot to keep control of their man’s worst impulses, she asserts.

For the men in Tiger Theory, this equates to endless nagging… Continue reading “Tiger Theory (Teorie Tygra) – Radek Bajgar, 2016”

Hastrman – Ondřej Havelka, 2018

Hastrman 2018

One of my favourite folk tales from back home is the Wild Man of Orford, a small coastal village not far from where I grew up. In the 12th Century, a group of local fishermen hauled their nets to discover they’d caught a strange naked man covered in greenish hair. He was taken to the nearby castle for interrogation, but after six months his torturers realised he wasn’t able to speak. 

After that they let him exercise in the sea, stringing nets across the harbour so he couldn’t escape. The Wild Man easily swam under them, but each time he returned willingly to the castle. Eventually, he tired of life on the land, slipped under the nets one last time and vanished out to sea.

A similar water-dwelling character from the landlocked Czech Republic is the vodník, or hastrman, a water goblin popular in fairytales and made famous by folklorist Karel Jaromir Erben in his collection of ballads, Kytice. The creature lives in bodies of water and is capable of drowning the unwary if he’s in a bad mood, or providing bumper catches of fish for the locals if kept happy with sacrifices and offerings…

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Moments (Chvilky) – Beata Parkanová, 2018

Chvilky Moments

I originally wanted to open this review with a good quote about life, and there are thousands and thousands of them online, ranging from the sage advice of Gandhi to the witticisms of W.C. Fields. In fact, when you type “quotes” into Google, “about life” is its first suggestion. So that means that either – a) there are tons of people out there writing reviews about tender character studies like Beata Parkanová’s Moments or b) millions of people every day are searching for a little inspiration to help them make sense of this bewildering rollercoaster we call Life…

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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…

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