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Kitchen sink Czechoslovak style
1 January 2012
A village girl tires of her nagging mother, leaves home, starts work in a factory in town, gets banged up at her best friend's wedding, has an abortion.

Though told with some humour, the rather grim routine is presented in an uncensorial, matter-of-fact way, as if to imply that this is every young woman's rite of passage. Apparently banned in Czechoslovakia until 1988 (presumably for the very reason that it was too realistic and unflattering to the current way of life), this works best as a "slice of life" memento of the drudgery of day-to-day existence in the former régime, though the film somehow looks older than it is.
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Entr'acte (1924)
Theatre of the Absurd
2 January 2011
This short film was conceived (hence the title) by René Clair as a diversion for the interval of the absurdist-Dadaist ballet "Relâche", with screenplay by Francis Picabia and music by Erik Satie, both artists at the forefront of the contemporary Parisian avant-garde. At the supposed first night performance in 1924, expectant patrons were greeted by locked doors and a notice bearing the single word "Relâche", which is the French word for "No Show". How absurd! Oh what fun!

To accompany the film, Satie composed a striking piece of orchestral music (arguably more significant than that for the ballet itself), and as expected the remastered film now has this added as its soundtrack, and a pretty good job has been made of editing the music to the action on the screen. This latter consists of a medley of surrealist sequences, culminating in a funeral procession, led by a camel, which escalates into a manic chase, intercut with footage from a big dipper. At the end, all the mourners disappear into thin air one by one; the corpse lives on. How significant all this is, as a narrative itself, as well as in the history of cinema as a whole, I am not qualified to comment, but it must have been seen as groundbreaking at the time, as well as good absurdist fun.

At the start of the film is a short sequence of two men firing a cannon from the roof of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and jumping up and down, which was shown separately at the opening of the ballet, not as part of Entr'acte. The two men are Picabia and Satie themselves. This footage is especially poignant, as Satie himself was dead within a year.

For Region 2 viewers, Entr'acte is included as a bonus with Clair's much later masterpiece "Les Grandes Manoeuvres".
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It's been worth the wait!
8 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
We had to wait decades for Jiří Menzel's realisation of Hrabal's fantastic novel – one of my all-time favourite books. Menzel has lost none of his joy, sensuality and lust for life, and the result is a film brimming with invention.

The book is the story of Jan Dítě, a smart but rather unsympathetic character whose "only aim in life is to be a millionaire", and his fortunes and misfortunes as Czechoslovakia passes from prosperous (or even, as here, sybaritic) republic, through Nazi occupation into Communism; a kind of Pilgrim's Progress through to a unique emancipation (which Menzel, a little confusingly, intercuts throughout).

Indeed, Hrabal may have intended Dítě to be symbolic of his country as a whole: a small, new country (dítě=child), downtrodden but rather cocky to begin, rapidly gaining in wealth and stature until cruelly divided on Nazi occupation between active resistance and passive collaboration; ambitious immediately after the war until crushed again, this time almost willingly, by Communism, then finally achieving a kind of nemesis in spite of itself. This may unduly romanticise the Communist régime, but I find Hrabal is a little guilty of this, despite being ironically critical elsewhere; perhaps he had to be. (I am English so forgive me if I have got this all wrong). Even so, his book (like others before) was rejected by the authorities in 1975 and remained unpublished for many years. Even the title was ironic: Dítě, of course, serves the Emperor of Ethiopia, not the King of England, who had been served by the head waiter of the Hotel Paříž. As Dítě observes, this honour did him no good when he was taken away by the Nazis — just as Czechoslovakia was expediently shafted at Munich in 1938 by her English "allies".

***Minor spoiler in next paragraph***

Menzel's portrayal of the young Dítě is a little Chaplinesque, perhaps to enable the viewer to identify more readily with a character who, in Hrabal's hands, is less ambiguous and sympathetic. He also possibly overplays the slapstick a little, though again this may be his way of presenting Hrabal's wonderful storytelling, the condensing of which into under 2 hours of film is a true feat. But the film is such a joy to watch, from the droll introduction (which, incidentally, does not come from the book, in which Dítě only gets 2 years in prison), through the horrors and ambiguities of war, to the paradisiacal ending, that all minor quibbles are forgiven.

The two actors playing Dítě are superb, the set pieces perfectly choreographed, the sense of history in progress impeccable. And it's fun. Fans of the sublime "Closely Observed Trains" and "Postřižiny" (two earlier Hrabal/Menzel collaborations) will surely not be disappointed. Conversely, if you loved this film and desire more, I urge you to seek out these earlier masterpieces.

Here is Menzel with a big budget, and he's wonderful. It's been worth the wait.
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Still challenging after 30 years
8 July 2010
This film has so much to say about important issues, and does it so well in many ways, that I really do want to believe it was conceived as a serious work of art and not as a sop to the dirty raincoat brigade. I've read all the reviews here by its stalwart defenders, who argue a good case for a unique film, but I remain to be fully convinced.

Did the production team deliberately court controversy by using so much child nudity or were they genuinely taken aback by the reaction to its release? Western Europe in the 1970s was pretty liberal about such things, and still is by American standards (thank God!), but even so the boundaries of "mainstream" films must have been pushed back quite a bit with Maladolescenza. Arguing that so much footage of pubescent sex was essential to the artistic integrity of the whole would have been difficult even then. Nowadays the film couldn't possibly be made, which is probably a good thing overall simply because (in my view) young children should not be sexualised for the benefit of adults. However in the case of Maladolescenza, although the girl actors were only 11 or 12, I think you would find it pretty difficult to assert that they were exploited or harmed in any way, judging from a cursory look at their filmographies; though I am open to persuasion otherwise by anyone who really knows.

So what we have is a curiosity from another age, and it's really rather good. The controversy over its content, which has made it so notorious (and which attracted my attention in the first place, and no doubt many others'), will rage forever, but beyond all that it's a pretty convincing study of adolescent torment and suffering. The locations are stunning and the three young actors are quite beautiful, highlighting all the more the psychological and physical torture they inflict on each other, which is achingly well portrayed and well acted. The film is shocking in its portrayal of children's cruelty, more so than any other I can think of, even Lord of the Flies. This is clearly deliberate, yet the shock value is compounded by the sex scenes — also intentional of course, but necessary to the whole? Sex is clearly integral to the power games being played out by the kids, and again this is a convincing aspect of the plot as a whole. Kids really do behave like that (you deny it at your peril) and a shiver went down my spine as I recalled my own youth — so the film worked in this way for me. It's challenging and that's good. I just recoil a little from seeing so much young flesh in such sexual situations. There's nothing wrong with nudity, yes even child nudity, and nothing wrong with sex; but combine the two and you cross the line at some point, and I think this film does, even though it's tastefully done and certainly not what I'd call child porn. That's my take on it, from my English standpoint. But sorry, righteous Christians and outraged moralists, I don't reckon I'll burn in hell for watching and enjoying it, and I'd far rather live in a society that permits eccentricities like this than your prurient paradise.

So yes, it's uncomfortable and challenging viewing, on many levels, and on these terms the film is undoubtedly successful. It obviously sickens the prudish, and although I can understand why, that actually contributes to its appeal for me. Ban it? Never! You don't have to watch it and neither do I, but I am strangely attracted by its power and sheer oddity. Flaws: yes, plenty of course, it's no masterpiece. The ending is daft for one, the dog pretty pointless for another (when it's around, which is not much). There also seem to be one or two non-sequiturs in the narrative flow, which may suggest some hasty editing (some sources give the original film length as 117 or 127 minutes, whereas the "uncut" version generally in circulation today only runs to around 91 minutes). But hopefully it will survive as a controversial cult classic for those of us with a taste for the weird, and a reminder of better times when the sight of a naked child did not automatically lead to mass hysteria from the self-righteous moral brigade across the pond.

Overall verdict — Great: no. Darned good: yes. Shocking: oh yes. Just don't try and do it again!
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Shortcuts (1981)
Jiří Menzel's finest film?
8 July 2010
This is the only film that makes me salivate. Yes, for a glass of Czech beer, a plate of pork and the beautiful Magda Vášáryová. It's a fond look at the lives of writer Bohumil Hrabal's parents in pre-war Czechoslovakia — father a put-upon brewery manager, mother sensual and flirtatious — and his eccentric, Švejk-like Uncle Pepin, who arrives uninvited and doesn't leave.

There's a lot of smiling and larking about, in and around the small-town brewery that was their home, and even those suffering injuries as a result seem to laugh at them. Utopian and nostalgic maybe, but why not? Nowadays we'd call it "feelgood". And that horse pissing — unscripted, surely (!) but the actors cope and director Jiří Menzel leaves it in to add to the mayhem.

I read the book years ago, but didn't realise until much later that Menzel had filmed it: what joy! Hrabal's breathless prose style is probably impossible to capture on screen, but the essence of the short story is not. In Menzel's loving hands the result is such a beautiful film, tender, whimsical, joyful, sensual, life-enhancing. I'd say that Postřižiny is definitely on a par with his better-known Ostře Sledované Vlaky (Closely Observed Trains), perhaps even superior as it benefits from more modern production quality, and colour. Such a shame it is not better known in the west — definitely our loss! But the Czech DVD has fairly good English subtitles for those unfortunates like myself who cannot speak the language, so now there is no excuse for not seeking out this gem.

Incidentally, Hrabal grew up in the brewery at Nymburk, east of Prague, but the film was actually shot at the Dalešice brewery further south in Moravia. Was the chimney there as tall, I wonder...?
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Routine Czechoslovak wartime melodrama
11 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Set in World War 2 as the Germans occupy Czechoslovakia, teenage Emilka's (Miroslava Součková) father is murdered by the Nazis, but she is selected for special treatment by virtue of being blonde. She is billeted with the kommandant of a concentration camp near the Baltic coast, where his kindness towards her provokes his wife's jealousy, but is compromised when Emilka witnesses his brutality towards the prisoners.

(Possible minor spoiler follows...)

As the war ends, he abandons his wounded wife and escapes with Emilka ... but ultimately justice prevails. With its happy ending, this is little more than a simple tale of beautiful Czech girl vs. brutal Nazi, and while this may appeal to Czech patriotic sensibilities, it is otherwise unremarkable apart from 18-year-old Miroslava Součková's fine acting and beautifully expressive face.
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Erotically Charged Comedy
28 February 2008
Set in a scrap metal yard at the great Kladno steelworks, at the time of its making (just as the Prague Spring was being terminated by the Russians) this was seen as a satirical attack on the Communist regime, which got both film and director Jiří Menzel banned for several years (the film was not released until 1990). How such a gentle film could be seen as so subversive now seems incredible nearly 4 decades later.

Sorry, Liehtzu, but it couldn't possibly be better than the sublime "Closely Observed Trains"! Maybe this is because that film is so timeless, whereas "Larks on a String" seems to have dated less well; it is now more of a series of formless sketches of erotically charged comedy, in which the Czech spirit always manages to triumph over oppression and even the "villains" elicit a certain sympathy.

Even so it is a gem of a film, witty, quirky and subtle, in which a bunch of renegade intellectuals, sent literally to the scrapheap, put the world to rights and try to engage with the pretty girls working over the metal mountain.

The DVD available in the Czech Republic (R2) has rather unreliable English subtitles, so much of the biting dialogue is lost in translation; still a wonderful film though.
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Subtle and affectionate
15 February 2008
The doctor keeps crashing his car, the lorry driver is fed up with his simpleton mate and plots to move him to Prague, the girls no longer wear bras and there's flirting, drunkenness, infidelity, and even the odd punch-up. There are hints of darker bureaucratic inadequacies (this film was made in the final years of the Communist regime), but director Jiří Menzel's loving observations of Czech village life are wryly humorous, and this is principally a gentle and affectionate paean in which nothing much happens except the ebb and flow of village life — the eternal nature of which is hinted at by the circular ending. A subtle joy from start to finish. Czech DVD has moderately reliable English subtitles.
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Two-and-a-half hours of (mostly) pure joy!
22 July 2007
It's too long and sometimes rather obvious, but this black comedy musical is an utterly unique experience; mad, eccentric and often hilarious as it sticks the knife deep into its target – the mad, eccentric English aristocracy. Peter O'Toole is totally magnetic throughout as the lunatic 14th Earl Of Gurney who thinks he is Jesus Christ, and Arthur Lowe delivers wonderfully dry comic moments as the loyal but offensive communist butler.

The mood varies between wit, slapstick and savagery (the latter a taste of Peter Barnes' original stage play), with plenty of memorable lines, and the odd crazy song-and-dance routine thrown in for good measure; but in the second half it becomes darker and the message clearer. The comic veneer only serves to emphasise the depth of Barnes' feelings towards the British establishment.

I have two editions, but the Momentum DVD (though more easily available and cheap in the UK), is of poor quality, panned & scanned to 4:3, has low sound quality and, worst of all, only runs to 124 minutes despite the cover claiming it is full-length and full-frame.

So I took the advice of earlier reviewers and sought out the Criterion edition. Get this one if you can - it's of superior quality, full screen and runs the full 154 minutes - it's worth the extra cost. Enjoy!
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