Tuesday, 30 June 2009


Revered Czech director Jiří Menzel’s most recent picture, I Served The King Of England, tells the story of Jan Dítě, a budding hotel waiter whose one dream in life is to become a millionaire. After rising through the ranks of Hotel Paříž’s auxiliary staff, as well as bedding a few women on the way, Jan grows a taste for observing the lifestyle of the rich. When he meets and falls in love with Líza, a German woman living in Prague during the Nazi invasion under the Third Reich, his former colleagues turn their backs on him. A recommendation from an associate inspires Líza to steal valuable stamps from the houses of displaced Polish-Jewish families for Jan to sell. When she dies, Jan sells them in order to become a hotelier. As communism takes power in Czechoslovakia, Jan decides to flaunt his newfound wealth in order to join the other millionaires in prison, who ostracise him having not forgotten his earlier treason. The core story officially takes place in the present day, the aged Jan recounting the past to his neighbours in between bouts of community service.

Menzel’s work is an exceptional piece, managing to convey the events of the past with a lightly humorous modern slant. Jan, despite his self-absorption and apparent emotional coldness, is a lovable character, and as a result it is a joy to experience the history of Czechoslovakia through his eyes (and his sexual experiences). A witty, and rare, mix of political satire and humanist drama.


Taking inspiration from the hyper-realistic gore of Dawn of the Dead, a film it masqueraded as a sequel to, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters is something of a guilty pleasure, making up for its theatrical shortcomings with inventively gruesome effects and thrills. When a suspiciously empty yacht floats into harbour, police find themselves talking to Anne Bowles, the daughter of a professor supposedly carrying out research on a tropical island. Peter West (Ian McCulloch), roving reporter extraordinaire, takes it upon himself to visit the island with Anne, calling in a favour from two sexy strangers with a spare boat. Upon arrival at the island, they are greeted – and mauled – by the undead, who seem determined to recruit every living being to their flesh-eating ways. Transparent script changes add an unrelated subplot about other professors trying unsuccessfully to discover the root of this endemic, and accidentally allowing it to spread and run riot in New York.

Although they didn’t have the greatest script to work from, the actors still manage to do a shambolic job of delivering their lines. B-movie veteran Ian McCulloch in particular fails to imbue a single line with convincing passion, while all the women have a tough time finding a balance between hyperoestrogenic and hysterical. On the other hand, Fulci shows promise in two creative scenes, one where a zombie wrestles a shark in an underwater pas de deux, and another where a professor’s frenzied wife is relieved of her pesky eyeball thanks to a sizeable splinter.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009


While tracking a hi-tech rocket named XZ, a group of scientists discover and research a loud wailing sound from outer space, only to deduce from the rocket’s explosion, and the intuitive behaviour of animals across the globe, that a series of meteors are coming to destroy Earth. Worse still, it is possible that the moon may intercept it, causing a detrimental effect on the tides and flooding the coasts. As a state of emergency is declared the world over, tempers fray and the scientists find it difficult to work with one another. Eventually however, some quick logical thinking (ignoring major plot holes) saves the day, and our heroes are able to breathe easy again.

In spite of the connotations given by its schlocky title, clumsy dubbing and overreliance on stock footage interstices, The Day The Sky Exploded isn’t a terrible work. Horror legend Mario Bava’s photography is, for the most part, rather impressive, the deliberately intermittent video feed from the rocket being perhaps the most forward-thinking aspect. The set design, while not groundbreaking, is suitable and believable. Some elements baffle however, such as the static interactions between characters (astronaut John notably never kisses his wife) which break from the genre and never really amount to any conclusion. It is remarkable also that, between the important scientific developments and shower of gloppy sound effects, the space crew manage to give enough attention to the control room dog, Geiger, often completely interrupting a significant development to pat him lovingly on the head.


Opening with a brief history of human flight, Werner Herzog’s The White Diamond follows the adventures of Graham Dorrington, a zealous British engineer sharing much of the passion and drive of Herzog’s other documentary subjects. Dorrington has spent many years and a lot of money creating a streamlined, teardrop-shaped airship, and is now preparing its maiden voyage over a waterfall in Guyana. As he prepares his craft for flight, intrigue grows around the cave behind the falls, and Herzog takes his camera round to the locals to learn more about the legends surrounding it.

All in all, though it loses focus a little, the film is about the successes of human endeavour, whether it be the tribe leader who supposedly paddled his canoe over the falls a century prior, or the sparky part-time waiter, full-time moonwalker who comes to the breathtaking overlook to practise his moves. It also helps that our hero is passionate and charming, even when recounting the story of how he lost two fingers, subsequently disqualifying him from becoming an astronaut.

Frequently, it feels like Herzog has been probing too much for eccentric ‘moments’ in spite of the innate quirkiness of his subjects. Dorrington’s touching reflections on deceased associates and failed experiments make the film a touching experience, but it is not always appropriate to hear. On the other hand, the poetic musings of “Red Beard”, the contemplative diamond miner, sound completely natural, and effectively summarise the entire theme of the film in a few short sentences.


Euzhan Palcy’s Sugar Cane Alley, a stark look at the lives of kids in a shanty town on the Caribbean isle of Martinique, takes its subject seriously but is cognisant of its Western audience, expecting a hero’s downfall and success. After stealing some rum and drunkenly setting fire to a building, the children receive a harsh beating, and life in the community becomes a lot less amicable. Matriarch Ma Tine decides that her grandson Jose’s only hope is to go to school and work hard. Although he still can’t help misbehaving, Jose begins to enjoy school more and more, surprising his teacher with eloquent responses gleaned from the philosophical conversations he had had with Medouze, a warm-hearted elder in the village.

The film often feels like a precursor to City of God, sharing the story of an underprivileged youth emerging from an impoverished community with artistic prospects. Jose eventually becomes, in the words of Ma Tine as she describes a stillborn child she births, “another kid saved from the white man’s cane fields”. The cinematography occasionally emerges with some gorgeous images, the apricot sky providing a surreal backdrop for the evening of the fire.

Medouze, a sympathetic adult figure who makes no attempts to hide his distaste for the colonialists, beguiles Jose with his inspirational, long-winded stories, and comes to give him and the audience some important lessons, most notably that “man can destroy life, but he cannot recreate it. Forget your own name, son, but don’t ever forget that”.