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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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Wild Flowers (Kytice) – F.A. Brabec, 2000

Vodnik Dan Barta Kytice 2000

Like a struggling Hogwarts student about to flunk their final exam, F.A Brabec fails to conjure the requisite magic to transform Wild Flowers into something completely worth watching. Flashy visuals and a strong cast can’t disguise the fact that this is an extremely patchy anthology based on the ballads of Czech folklorist, Karel Jaromir Erben…

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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)…

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Those Wonderful Years That Sucked (Báječná léta pod psa) – Petr Nikolaev, 1997

If you’re a regular follower of Czech Film Review you’ll know that I have a long-standing beef with movies based on the works of Michael Viewegh. I hate them so much – especially Angels (Andělé všedního dne), which must rank as one of the worst movies I’ve seen in any language – that I’m kind of addicted to them. Not only are they sexist, ageist and homophobic, but they’re also just so damned mean-spirited, with a nihilistic view on human relationships. Perhaps the subtleties of Viewegh’s novels don’t adapt well to the screen, but Viewegh seems to hate all his characters, especially women. So what made the novelist such a black-hearted misanthrope? It’s like a puzzle I need to solve.

So I arrived at Those Wonderful Years That Sucked, based on Viewegh’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Semi-autobiographical, eh? It’s probably going to be a heinous chore just like his other adaptations, I thought, but maybe I’ll find some answers…

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The Ear (Ucho) — Karel Kachyňa, 1970/1989

 

Like many films that were considered problematic by the communist regime in Czechoslovakia at their time of release, Karel Kachyňa’s The Ear was banned until 1989. Unlike the surreal elements found in Case for a Rookie Hangman, this film takes a more grounded approach to explore the fears and anxieties experienced by the country’s inhabitants. The film centres around a married couple trying to get through a night of desperation after they suspect their home might be under surveillance by the government…

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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…

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