The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society


Wheels keep on turning.

(2018) Drama (NetflixLily James, Michael Huisman, Jessica Brown Findlay, Glen Powell, Matthew Goode, Tom Courtnay, Katherine Parkinson, Clive Merrison, Bernice Stegers, Penelope Wilton, Kit Connor, Bronagh Gallagher, Florence Keen, Andy Gathergood, Nicolo Pasetti, Marek Oravec, Jack Morris, Stephanie Schonfeld, Pippa Rathbone, Rachel Olivant, Emily Patrick. Directed by Mike Newell

 

In 1946, England was still picking itself up and dusting itself off after the war. In London, the ruin of the Blitz was still very much in evidence and while there was an attitude of starting fresh, the pain and horror of the war wasn’t far from the surface.

Author Juliet Ashton (James) is making a tidy amount off of plucky war-set stories that are popular but bring her no intellectual satisfaction. A fan letter from a book club in picturesque Guernsey, a Channel Island that had been occupied by the Nazis during the war (a fact that this ignorant American wasn’t aware of) leads her to visit the club to perform a reading. She is captivated by the beauty of the island but even more so by the people, particularly those in the club. Although she is engaged to a flashy American diplomat (Powell), she finds herself drawn to farmer Dawsey Adams (Huisman). She is also drawn to the mystery of Elizabeth McKenna (Findlay), once the heart and soul of the club but whose absence nobody seems to want to talk about.

Mike Newell is one of the UK’s most capable directors with movies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral as well as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, one of the better installments in the franchise, to his credit. He does a marvelous job of evoking the post-war Era and gathering together an even more marvelous cast. James is never more attractive than she is here, and nearly all of the ensemble cast has some wonderful moments, particularly veterans Courtnay and Wilton, particularly Wilton who is much undervalued as an actress. There are sequences here where the raw emotions brought on by survivor’s guilt are communicated without theatrical hysterics. It’s a nuanced and brilliant performance that very nearly steals the show.

The romantic elements of the movie are a bit too sweet, leaving one with an unpleasant taste in the mouth – I truly wish that the plot had revolved more on the tale of Elizabeth McKenna than on the romance between Dawsey Adams and Juliet Ashton which came off like a British period soap opera only less interesting. I can’t not recommend a Mike Newell film however and the strong performances in this one make it a perfect candidate to Netflix and Chill.

REASONS TO SEE: The era is recreated beautifully.
REASONS TO AVOID: Contains more than a little bit of treacle.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are somewhat adult; there are also some sexual references and occasional mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James, Findlay, Good and Wilton also have appeared in the hit PBS series Downton Abbey; one of the filming locations for the show also doubled as exteriors for Guernsey (the Charterhouse in cases anyone is keeping score).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man Who Went Up a Hill & Came Down a Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Jim Allison: Breakthrough

Reinventing Rosalee


The centenarian on a dog sled.

(2018) Documentary (RandomRosalee Glass, Lillian Glass, Joyce Sharman, Daniel Bouchet, Dr. Robert Huizenga, Neda Nahouray, Eric Lintermans, Elke Jensen, Nancy Caballero, Clay Lee, Douglas James, Robert Stradley, Joe Solo, Yuki Solo, Eleanor K. Wirtz, Paul Sweeney, Miamon Miller. Directed by Lillian Glass

Talking to one’s grandparent (or parent) about their life can be an eye-opening experience. We often forget how rich – and how rough – their life can be. All we see is the relationship and the love, often forgetting that there is a person behind that smile.

Rosalee Glass has had a life that has been harder than most. Born in Warsaw in 1917, she grew up in a Jewish family. In 1939, being a Jew in Poland became a very dangerous thing. She was newly married and pregnant when the Nazi blitzkrieg stormed through Poland. Sensing the writing on the wall, her husband left the country to find some shelter elsewhere. Rosalee later followed him, leaving behind her mother, father and two siblings. She would see none of them ever again and in fact later discovered that all of them were killed during the war, murdered by the Third Reich.

Eventually Rosalee and her husband were rounded up – by the Russians. They were sent to a Russian gulag in Siberia. Nursing a newborn baby became impossible when she wasn’t getting enough to eat and her breast milk dried up. Eventually her child starved to death. She would go on to have three more children but only two survived; her daughter Lillian and her son Manny.

The war ended and Rosalee, Manny and her husband Abraham ended up in a displaced person’s camp. Eventually they were allowed to emigrate to the United States and they settled in Miami where Abraham’s tuberculosis, contracted during the war, came back with a vengeance. He ended up losing the sight in one eye which ended his career as a watchmaker. He and Rosalee ended up going into business with a fabric company which became successful.

When Abraham died and after Manny died, Rosalee found herself wondering what to do with herself. She made the conscious decision to continue living and in her 80s and 90s took up dance lessons, piano lessons, Pilates – even learning how to box. She took up a career in acting and appeared in several commercials. She entered a senior beauty pageant and won Miss Congeniality. She spent her 100th birthday in Alaska riding a dog sled.

Her story is truly an inspiring one and maybe even worthy of a documentary but her daughter was the wrong person to make it. Lillian Glass is a best-selling author, a body language expert and has a doctorate in psychology but she has zero objectivity where her mother is concerned and that’s to be expected. That might make for good home movies or a Power Point slide show at a birthday tribute but it makes for less-than-scintillating documentary filmmaking.

As a first-time filmmaker she makes a number of rookie mistakes, relying a little too much on interviews with her mother who is to be fair an engaging subject and one who can keep the attention of the audience. Rosalee has one of those smiles that bring out smiles in everyone around her and that translates to the screen nicely but we don’t get a lot of different perspectives on who Rosalee is. The daughter’s love certainly shines through but we could have used a bit more objectivity.

The movie makes good use of archival footage and home movies but the movie clips that Lillian uses to illustrate various aspects of Rosalee’s life were at times a bit bizarre. There is also a sequence in which a 90-something Rosalee returns to Warsaw to see where she grew up and the music that accompanies that sequence is far too bombastic – a simple, quieter soundtrack would have enhanced the tone much better.

Rosalee is certainly a worthy subject and it’s no wonder her daughter is proud of her mother but she was clearly unable to view the subject matter objectively and that is absolutely deadly for a documentary and something any savvy audience will notice. What saves this documentary is Rosalee herself; her wit, wisdom, fortitude and good cheer are inspiring and most seniors would do well to take her advice if they haven’t already. However, cinephiles should be aware that they might experience frustration when it comes to the filmmaker, more so than the subject.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some valuable life lessons here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific Holocaust images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won more than 40 awards on the Festival circuit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Sonia
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cold Blood

Anthropoid


Nobody likes a bomb.

Nobody likes a bomb.

(2016) Historical Drama (Bleecker Street) Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Charlotte Le Bon, Toby Jones, Sean Mahon, Bill Milner, Jan Hájek, Pavel Reznicek, Alena Mihulová, Harry Lloyd, Detlef Bothe, Roman Zach, Mish Boyko, Sam Keeley, Ondrej Maly, Marcin Corocinski, Karel Hermánek Jr., Václav Neuzil, Jiri Simek, Andrej Polak, Anna Gerislová. Directed by Sean Ellis

 

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but there are some true stories that are not strange at all, but point out the best that humanity can be – and the worst. Not all of those sorts of stories stay with us for long and indeed this one remains only relatively well-known in Eastern Europe, but it is a story worth the telling.

After the Berlin Accords gave what was then known as Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany to be used as fuel for the war machine to come, Prague became an occupied city and the entire region was ruled with an iron fist. Holding that fist was Reinhard Heydrich (Bothe), one of the authors of Hitler’s Final Solution and who would become known as The Butcher of Prague.

The Czech government in exile decided to make a statement and sent a team of paratroopers into the countryside outside Prague who had the mission of assassinating Heydrich. Leading the team was Josef Gabcik (Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Dornan), two Czech soldiers. Things went bad from the beginning; Kubis injured his foot while landing and the two resistance fighters who were sent to meet them turned out to be Nazi collaborators. The two soldiers barely escaped with their lives.

They finally found legitimate resistance members in Prague, but the situation there was very chaotic. There was little or no information to be hand; the city was under severe restrictions and people were being rounded up and imprisoned with impunity. There were infiltrators everywhere and knowing whom to trust was no easy task. “Uncle” Hajsky (Jones) was trying to make some sort of organization through all this but most of his men had been arrested. He put up the two paratroopers in the Moravec home whose mother (Mihulová) was a resistance member and their son Ata (Milner) loyal to the cause.

To keep suspicions from being aroused over the new arrivals, girlfriends were supplied; Marie (Le Bon) for Josef and Lenka (Gerislová) for Jan. The deception turned out to be a lot more accurate as the two couples began to actually fall for each other. Wartime can be a great accelerator of romance.

In the repressive atmosphere of Prague, however, getting their mission completed would be no easy task and with little contact with their government and almost no intelligence to go on, the two men had their work cut out for them. What would happen would become one of the greatest instances of heroism to come out of the War and is a source of national pride to the Czechs even to this day.

It is not an easy thing to write a review or a movie that is about actual history; while one doesn’t want to supply spoilers for those who may not be aware of how the story unfolded, at the same time it is difficult to write about the film without giving at least some plot points away. Suffice to say that Ellis and company have given us a movie whose historical accuracy is better than almost any movie I’ve ever seen; that is a double-edged sword however.

The movie does drag in places, particularly in the first half. Once the assassination is attempted, the movie is turbo charged and Ellis delivers some really fine suspense sequences and one of the best shoot-outs since the climax of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Murphy and Dornan are both fine actors and they’re given some exceptional material to work with. Both men are imperfect, neither are superheroes and both have the kinds of doubts and frailties that real heroes must overcome to do extraordinary things.

Those who are aware of the history behind the celluloid are going to view this a lot differently than those who are unfamiliar with the story; even the latter group however may find the sense of things spiraling towards a final conclusion somewhat overwhelming. We all know that the Titanic is going to sink even before we view the movie; how it gets there and who survives is what makes that movie a classic.

As a movie, Anthropoid makes an excellent history lesson. That doesn’t always translate to entertainment however, unless you are entertained by history and fortunately for me, I am. I found the film fascinating and I was moved enough to research the real Operation Anthropoid which is where I discovered that the filmmakers stuck to the facts of the incident quite closely which is something to be admired, although at times they seem to be willing to sacrifice entertainment for accuracy. I think that both could have coexisted better as the last half of the movie clearly shows; had the first half been able to capture the tension of the second this would have been a clear front runner to be one of the best movies of the year. Unfortunately, it is slow in getting underway so this will have to remain a solid, historically accurate war film that is flawed but nevertheless worth seeing.

REASONS TO GO: Historically accurate and full of gut-wrenching suspense. The performances are strong throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: The sense of impending doom is oppressive at times. Slow-moving in the first half of the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence here as well as some fairly disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene in which Ata Moravec is tortured was filmed in the same place where it actually happened.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Operation: Daybreak
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Don’t Think Twice

Ida


I say a little prayer for you.

I say a little prayer for you.

(2014) Drama (Music Box) Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik, Jerzy Trela, Adam Szyszkowski, Halina Skoczynska, Joanna Kulig, Dorota Kuduk, Natalia Lagiewczyk, Afrodyta Weselek, Mariusz Jakus, Izabela Dabrowska, Artur Janusiak, Anna Grzeszczak, Jan Wociech Poradowski, Konstanty Szwemberg, Pawel Burczyk. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Offshoring

Most of us have a handle on who we are mainly because we know with confidence who we were and where we come from. Not everyone has that luxury however.

Anna (Trzebuchowska) is a teenage novitiate getting ready to take her vows as a Roman Catholic nun in communist Poland in 1962. She knew no other life but the nunnery; she had been orphaned as a baby during World War II and brought there to be raised. Shortly before the ceremony is to take place, the mother superior of her order (Skoczynska) summons her to her office and informs Anna that a relative of hers has been located. She strongly suggests that Anna go and spend some time with her aunt before the ceremony. Anna is reluctant but does so obediently.

Her Aunt Wanda (Kulesza) is different than any other woman Anna has known; a chain smoker and borderline alcoholic, Wanda lives hard and plays hard with a succession of men. However, the most startling revelation is about Anna herself.

Wanda informs her that her birth name wasn’t Anna at all but Ida – Ida Lebenstern. Her parents and siblings were all killed during the Nazi occupation. Anna, or Ida as she’s now known, decides to go with Wanda to the village where she was born and where her family died. She wants to know what happened, so Wanda and her set out in their broken down little Wartburg (an Eastern European vehicle) to the hinterlands of Poland. On the way they meet Lis (Ogrodnik), a saxophone player heading to a gig in the hotel they’ll be staying at.

It is not just her family that Ida will discover the truth about, but as she allows her sexual side to open up, she finds Lis to be very interesting indeed. And her Aunt, once a Stalinist prosecutor for the state whose many death sentences merited the nickname Red Wanda, is not nearly as strong as she seems. How can Ida go back to being Anna the nun when she’s discovered so much?

Pawlikowski, who was born in Poland and emigrated to Western Europe when he was 14, has based his entire career in England. This is his first film in his native Poland and he chose to film it in black and white which turns out to be a brilliant decision and not just because it captures the era so perfectly, but also it sets a mood that is often bleak and colorless.

Trzebuchowska is a real find. She’s not an actress nor does she intend from all reports to pursue that as a career, but she is perfect for this role. Wide, gamine eyes and a pretty triangular face, she is both innocent and worldly. There is almost a saintly quality to her in some ways, the way she clings to her faith in a world which has grown cynical and cold. She has largely been untouched by it but as the movie progresses and she becomes exposed to the world that innocence wavers but something new and extraordinary emerges.

Kulesza is one of Poland’s most decorated actresses and she turns in a fine performance here. On the surface Wanda is strong and self-confident, a pillar of strength and secure in her knowledge that she has been a good servant of the state. Now, she’s not so sure and the more she finds out about the fate of Anna’s family, the more she realizes that she is no different than those who so cruelly orphaned her niece. It’s a subtle but powerful realization that leads to one of the movie’s most shocking scenes.

The movie is gorgeously shot from the wintery countryside, the dingy interior of the farmhouse where Anna was born, the hotel lounge where the band is playing, the convent and Wanda’s elegant apartment. While some might discriminate against the film due to its lack of color, those folks are missing out – it’s beautiful in its spare atmosphere.

This is a haunting film and not just because the nuns look like ghosts from another time, well before when this film is set. You will be caught in Ida’s story and as her journey continues, you won’t be able to help wanting to see where it leads. It doesn’t always go where you might expect it to go, but then again, whose journey does?

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Kulesza and Trzebuchowska. Gorgeous black and white cinematography. Compelling story.

REASONS TO STAY: Overwhelmingly bleak and austere.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are very adult and there is some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original cinematographer had to withdraw from the film after ten days of shooting due to illness. He was replaced by Lukasz Zal who completed the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aftermath

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Bears

Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story


Tomi Ungerer knows how to take a bite out of life.

Tomi Ungerer knows how to take a bite out of life.

(2012) Documentary (Corner of the Cave) Tomi Ungerer, Maurice Sendak, Jules Feiffer, Michael Patrick Hearn, Patrick Skene Catling, Steven Heller, Burton Pike, Patrick Joseph Sheehan. Directed by Brad Bernstein   

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

Children’s books are a big business. Dr. Seuss is a household name after all. There have been other authors – Maurice Sendak, Martin Handford, Margaret Wise Brown and Jo Rowling – who have made a good living at influencing young minds and stirring up young imaginations.

Another name on that list should be Tomi Ungerer. Unless you’re my age or older, his name might not be familiar. In the 60s, he was one of the most popular and highly-regarded illustrator and writer of children’s books that there was. He had created such books as Crictor, The Three Robbers, Flat Stanley and Moon Man.

He was born in Strasbourg and was quite young when his father passed away. Not long after that, the Nazis invaded France and in Strasbourg, a city near the French and German border, French was forbidden. Young Tomi learned to speak German (although his mother defiantly spoke French) and became so fluent in it that even today he speaks with a distinctly Germanic accent, so much so that many assume he’s Austrian or German.

After the war he emigrated to New York City, believing (correctly as it turned out) that he could make his fortune here. He had always loved to draw and had become quite good at it. Inspired by the line drawings style of the New Yorker, he got a job with a children’s publishing house (Harper & Row) and soon became very familiar with the top of the bestseller’s lists. Although a bit on the eccentric side, he was tolerated because his books were selling.

As the 60s wore on, Ungerer – whose sympathies lay with the counterculture – produced a number of posters protesting the Vietnam War. He also created a book of erotic drawings called The Underground Sketchbook followed by Fornicon,  a book that not only was erotic but satire as well, commenting on the increasing mechanization of sex.

That was all it took. Abruptly Ungerer’s services were no longer needed. His books were pulled from the shelves and remained so for decades (some of his books only recently returned to print and others remain so). Eventually Ungerer fled New York for Newfoundland where he worked briefly as a pig farmer – by that time he was married with children and had to do something to support them. Eventually he relocated to Cork in Ireland where he remains today.

In his 80s, Ungerer remains something of a gadfly. The filmmaker (a veteran of VH1’s Behind the Music series) effectively utilizes Ungerer’s artwork and animations to great effect, interweaving talking head interviews, archival footage and home movies to flesh out Ungerer the man. As interesting as the art is, Ungerer himself is even more fascinating. He has lived several lifetimes and seen so much – yet he retains that eye that artists have, that personality that allows them to see life through eyes that reject the normal while understanding it.

I found this to be fascinating stuff. I was familiar with his name more than I was with individual artwork or books – although I’m the right age, I don’t remember having any of his books in the house (my mom and sister might chime in and disagree but I simply don’t remember them if we had any) and watching the movie his style looked familiar but not overly so. I might have wished to spend more time looking at his drawings but then there’s always a visit to the museum devoted to his work in Strasbourg. I even have a good friend who lives in the area.

REASONS TO GO: Ungerer is an engaging presence. His work speaks for itself. Brings his story and artwork back into the public eye.

REASONS TO STAY: Some folks might find his point of view and art offensive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some artistic nudity and sexual humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Like many films of late, this one got much of its funding from a Kickstarter campaign.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; has been firmly established on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crumb

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Shepard and Dark

The Pianist (2002)


Adrien Brody realizes he may never get a role as juicy as this one ever again.

Adrien Brody realizes he may never get a role as juicy as this one ever again.

(2002) True Wartime Drama (Focus) Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Jessica Kate Meyer, Julia Rayner, Joachim Paul Assbock, Roy Smiles, Daniel Caltagirone, John Bennett, Cyril Shaps, Andrew Tiernan, Nina Franoszek. Directed by Roman Polanski

Survival is relative. There are ordinary survival stories; making it through the work week, for example. We all make compromises, do what we must to keep a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes on our backs. We relate to the extraordinary survival situations — such as the Holocaust — because of the little things we ourselves do to survive.

Pianist Wladislaw Szpilman (Brody) in pre-war Warsaw has a bright future; already a world-famous concert pianist, he is young, handsome, talented and outgoing. The world is his oyster.

Unfortunately, this oyster is tainted. Nazi Germany takes over Poland so quickly that Szpilman, busy in the studio for the past week and out of touch, has not read the papers and is so completely unaware that his country has been invaded that he doesn’t understand when he hears explosions and sees flying glass at the studio.

The situation deteriorates. As the rights of Jews become more and more restricted, eventually they are herded into the small area that would come to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. The horrific becomes the everyday. People starve to death in the streets. Jews are pulled aside by Nazi officers at random and shot like animals. Then, the Ghetto is cleared, and things become even worse.

Through it all, Szpilman does what he must in order to survive. Relying mostly on the kindness of friends and admirers, he hides out after escaping the train to the death camps, and witnesses the Warsaw Uprising, the brutal Nazi suppression and eventually, the end of the war. Szpilman is not a fighter, although he wants to be more heroic. His bravery does not come in physical courage, fighting a ruthless enemy. His bravery is internal, facing starvation, loneliness and death. Throughout, the hope that he will again someday play his piano in front of a packed concert hall sustains him.

There have been many movies depicting the horrors of the Holocaust. Although Szpilman is Jewish, this is not a Jewish story per se. Whether or not Szpilman is a devout man or not is never explored. This is one man’s story in a world gone completely insane. It is his muse more than his God that sustains Wladislaw Szpilman, and with everything taken away from him – his family, his friends, his home, his career – his muse cannot be, and that is where the triumph and the spirit of this movie lies.

Brody won an Oscar for his performance here, as did director Roman Polanski, himself a Polish Holocaust survivor. Brody’s Academy Award is richly deserved; his performance is subtle, nuanced and rarely out of control. There are many wonderful moments, most accomplished when Brody is alone without another actor to play off of, a notoriously difficult achievement. I will always remember the scene in which Szpilman is hiding in an apartment in which there is a piano, which he dares not play for fear he will be discovered. But play it he does, his hands several inches above the keys, playing music only Szpilman can hear, and by the expression of satisfaction on his face, it is enough. Kretschmann also is noteworthy for playing a sympathetic German officer.

The Pianist is wrenching at times in its unflinching look at the horrors of everyday life in occupied Poland, so the squeamish may want to have their finger on the fast-forward button. However, the triumphant story of a man defying impossible odds, and Brody’s classic performance make this a must-see on home video.

WHY RENT THIS: An Oscar-winning performance for the ages by Brody. Inspiring and uplifting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The brutality and horror of the Nazi reign is depicted without blinking so this may be upsetting to the sensitive sorts.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violence and occasional bad language, but the images of death and torture may be too much for some.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Brody is the youngest actor to date to win the Oscar – he was 29 at the time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is an excellent feature on the real Szpilman with interviews with him and Polanski describing their own experiences during the occupation.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $120.1M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Bullet to the Head

I Served the King of England


I Served the King of England

Julia Jentsch prepares to lick Ivan Bartev clean.

(Sony Classics) Ivan Barnev, Julia Jentsch, Oldrich Kaiser, Martin Huba, Marian Labuda, Milan Lasica, Jaromir Dulava, Tonya Graves. Directed by Jiri Menzel

It is part of the human condition to want more than what we have. Some of us have absolutely no idea how to get it while others have detailed plans on how to attain what we want. Still others will do absolutely anything to get it.

Jan Dite (Kaiser) has been released from a Czech prison (he was set free after serving only 14 years and 9 months of a 15 year sentence) and has been repatriated to a place near the border with the expectation that he will flee over it. However, Dite finds himself a small pub that has been abandoned and decides to restore it and open it for business.

As a young man (Barnev), he had been something of a con artist who amuses himself by scattering coins on the ground and watching wealthy men bend down to pick them up. He dreams of being a millionaire and becomes taken by a vision of a grand hotel in prewar Prague, bull of tuxedo-wearing, white gloved waiters, crystal chandeliers and enough snootiness to put the House of Lords to shame.

He gets a job in one as a waiter and becomes the protégé of the headwaiter (Huba) of the restaurant who is the essence of impeccable service, manners and haughtiness. When asked the secret to his demeanor, he replies “I served the King of England.” It’s the only appearance the King of England makes in the film.

Barnev moves from hotel to hotel, each more prestigious than the last, learning everything that he can so that one day he might own a hotel of his own. He may be small in stature (a running gag through the movie) but that doesn’t diminish his ability to be in control of any situation that comes his way. He also has a taste for beautiful women that he exercises as often as he can.

That is, until the Nazis occupy Czechoslovakia and then, pragmatist that he is, supports the Nazi regime in order to further his ambitions. He even marries a fervent German teacher who forces him to prove his Aryan lineage before she’ll consent to wed him and bear purebred Aryan babies. The marriage is short-lived, however as she is killed trying to retrieve a box of valuable rare stamps she had looted from Jewish homes while she was working in Russia. Dite finds her body and gently removes the box; no sense in wealth going to waste.

And it doesn’t. Dite uses the money from the sale of the stamps to buy one of the magnificent hotels he was formally employed by and becomes a millionaire – until the communists throw him in jail as they did with all the millionaires. As Dite says in voiceover narration at the onset of the film, it is always his luck to find bad luck.

Director Menzel is a veteran of the Czech film industry, having directed the much-revered 1967 Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains. He suffuses an odd mix of style here, making a kind of silent slapstick screwball softcore sex comedy of manners. The movie was the most popular Czech release of 2007 mainly because Menzel knows what two things are most dear to the Czech man’s heart – beautiful naked women and beer, and there’s a cornucopia of both here.

Barnev moves through the movie with an expression of smug insolence much like a naughty boy who knows he can get away with murder because he isn’t going to get caught and even if he is, he certainly won’t be punished. He is a major component as to why the movie works; while the scenes alternate with Kaiser playing the older version of him narrating the tale and preparing his pub, it is Barnev who captures the attention.

Menzel understand what makes a comedy effective. He examines some of the baser aspects of human nature and allows us to see those flaws in ourselves and shake our heads and laugh ruefully at them. There are some broad slapstick moments to be sure, but there is also a good deal of subtle, gentle humor that is actually quite refreshing. There is a good blend of laughter and pathos; Menzel is wise enough to understand the proper measurements of each to make a compelling brew.

WHY RENT THIS: A gentle sense of humor about class, ambition and lust in pre-war Europe allows us, like all good comedies, to laugh at these elements in ourselves.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This may be a little too low-key for some who prefer the comedies broad and raunchy, although there is plenty of the latter. It is also subtitled, which turns off some viewers.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of nudity and sexuality in the movie, but much of it is done in a humorous manner; shouldn’t be too offensive although I’d think twice before letting the kids watch this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name “dite” in Czech means “child.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Push