Blu-Ray Review: The Firemen’s Ball

Director: Milos Forman
Screenplay: Milos Forman, Jaroslav Papousek, Ivan Passer
Based on a Story by: Václav Sasek
Starring: Jan Vostrcil, Josef Sebánek, Josef Valnoha
Country: Czechoslovakia, Italy
Running Time: 71 min
Year: 1967
BBFC Certificate: PG


I‘ve mentioned my love of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: An Odyssey on several occasions, even listing it as my favourite film of 2012. One of the joys I found in that documentary was discovering obscure or forgotten classics to add to my ever expanding ‘to watch’ list. So whenever I come across a title mentioned in the documentary I get excited. Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball is one such film and the wonderful team over at Arrow have released it on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD, which of course meant I leapt at the chance of reviewing it for them.

Milos Forman is best known for the Hollywood classics One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, as well as the 90’s biopics The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon. However, he started his directing career in his native Czechoslovakia. His films made there were considered key titles in the country’s New Wave movement, particularly The Firemen’s Ball, which was his final Czech film before moving to the US.

Other than a brief expository opening scene, The Firemen’s Ball takes place during one evening’s celebrations in honour of the former president of a small town’s fire department. A group of ageing volunteer firemen host the event and their clumsy attempts to put on a good show, including an ill-fated beauty pageant, unfold before us in an ever escalating series of disasters.

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Blindspotting #10 – Amadeus and Marty

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At the time I set out to write this particular blind spot post originally, it was during the Toronto International Film Festival and I found myself without much time left and in a quandry as to what to choose for the Blind Spot. What did I feel like writing about this this time around? I don’t know, what do I feel like writing about? I didn’t just want to slap something mediocre together, but found myself looking for two films that would at least somewhat relate to each other. I ended up choosing two Oscar winning pictures: 1984’s Amadeus and 1955’s Marty. Besides each film taking their titles from the first names of their main characters and each having taken home the Best Picture prize of its year (as well as Best Actor, Director and Screenplay awards), I thought that the 30 year gap between them would add some interesting comparison points. It turns out that the main characters of each film are much more interesting comparison points than I would’ve guessed – especially when it comes to the area of mediocrity.

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Amadeus3

The main character in Amadeus is, in many ways, not actually the famous composer himself, but his rival Salieri (played by F. Murray Abraham in the Oscar winning performance). Though he fancies himself quite the musical genius (and is indeed the court composer for Emperor Joseph II), he is gobsmacked when he encounters the ease with which Mozart creates entire fully-formed pieces (the “voice of God”) within his head. Salieri is not only jealous of Mozart’s skill, but he wonders why God has given these talents to this vulgar character who drinks, carouses and appears to have no manners about him. Salieri vows to block Mozart’s success by working against him behind the scenes and, eventually, to murder him. From the confines of an insane asylum, we learn much of this many years after Mozart’s death as Salieri confesses all to a priest after a botched suicide attempt. From Salieri’s point of view, everything was fine before this young punk showed up on the scene. Not that it necessarily affected his career, but he suddenly couldn’t help but see his own shortcomings. Previously, “everybody liked me…I liked myself.”.

He can’t help but now see himself as just a mediocre talent, forsaken by God. Even though he secretly attends every Mozart performance and opera, he cannot accept this and continues to work towards crushing Amadeus (e.g. ensuring people don’t hire him for tutoring positions, closing operas in short order, etc.). His only chance to rise above his own mediocrity is to destroy Mozart and triumph over God.

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Movies We Watched

Sometimes we watch stuff that we want to talk just a little bit about, not a full review worth. These are those films. If any of the films reviewed are available on Netflix Instant Watch (US or Canada) or HuluPlus (US only), we’ll note that by putting a direct link below the capsule.

Buried

2010 USA/Spain/Frane. Director: Rodrigo Cortés. Starring: Ryan Reynolds.

An extreme form of one-room film, with the whole thing set in a coffin buried somewhere underground. Ryan Reynolds carries the film admirably as an army contractor who gets taken hostage and buried alive with just a cell phone and a few other items, with the intention that he will get a sizeable ransom from the US government for his release. As we know, the US government doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, leaving Reynolds hoping that the dispatched search and rescue team will find him before his air runs out. The film ratchets up tension admirably, keeping the audience engaged through 95 minutes of basically nothing happening except a man talking on a phone. There are nitpicks to be made, and I do wish there had been some better explanation for why he didn’t try to dig out through the obviously loose and relatively shallow dirt above him, but for the most part, it’s pretty effective as a tight-space thriller.
– JANDY

Netflix Instant (USA)

Gattaca

1997 USA. Director: Andrew Niccol. Starring: Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, Uma Thurman.

While Gattaca did not fly quite as far under the radar as The Man from Earth or Dark City, I cannot help but feel that it remains incredibly underseen and underappreciated. It is generally regarded as a strong film, to be sure, yet I would argue that it is among the greatest sci-fi films ever made. Nimbly toeing the line between the bleak and hectic Blade Runner and the philosophically draining The Man from Earth, Niccol’s universe not only feels realistic – it feels possible … if not probable. The physical presentation of the world is bleak, yes, but it is also vibrant and alive, crafting a future that is advanced, but not so advanced so as to be a distraction. This, of course, ignores the tremendous turns of Ethan Hawke and Jude Law, whose relationship is organic and beautiful. Uma Thurman is undoubtedly the weak link in the chain, but that may be as much a product of her underutilization, if not a side effect of the brilliance of most everything else.
– DOMENIC

Netflix Instant (CANADA)

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Finite Focus: How to Smoke a Joint (Taking Off)

Before Milos Forman was the Oscar-winning director of Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he was one of the foremost directors of the Czechoslovak New Wave, bringing French New Wave sensibilities to a Czechoslovak setting (but calling on universal themes) in films like Black Peter, Loves of a Blonde, and The Fireman’s Ball. In between those two career phases, he made his Hollywood debut with Taking Off (1971), made while he was still struggling with English and having to rely on writer/actor Buck Henry to help him with the line readings. But that doesn’t seem to matter too much, and the film, though something of an oddity, is more compelling than you might imagine.

Generally, it’s the story of a young girl who wants to be free from her parents’ loving but old-fashioned home and joins up with a group of free-loving hippies. But the film doesn’t focus on her, aside from a few sequences where we’re privy to a sort of impromptu concert from future stars like Carly Simon and a young Kathy Bates (billed as Bobo Bates), who provide a sort of wistful soundtrack. The rest of the time, we’re with her parents, searching for her fruitlessly, not really knowing where to turn until they stumble upon some other parents in the same situation and discover there’s a whole support group – the Society for the Parents of Lost Children, or SPLC for short. At one of the meetings of the SPLC, the leader suggests that everybody try marijuana – you know, to understand what their children are experiencing.

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Movies We Watched

Sometimes we watch stuff that we want to talk just a little bit about, not a full review worth. These are those films. If any of the films reviewed are available on Netflix Instant Watch (US or Canada) or HuluPlus (US only), we’ll note that by putting a direct link below the capsule.

Point Blank

2011 France. Director: Fred Cavayé. Starring: Gilles Lellouche, Roschdy Zem, Gérard Lanvin, Elena Anaya.

The immediate comparison when talking about Point Blank is to Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One. Both are high-paced French language thrillers about the search for truth and motivated by love for a wife. That comparison is certainly apt. And while Point Blank is a decidedly less memorable and weighty piece than Tell No One (I still think that’s one of the best mystery thrillers of the last few years, foreign language or otherwise), I still very much enjoyed Point Blank mainly for its taut pace that barely stops for breath throughout its pleasingly brisk 80 minute runtime.
-ROSS

Cold Souls

2009 USA, France. Director: Sophie Barthes. Starring: Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Emily Watson, Dina Korzun, Lauren Ambrose.

This was a big disappointment for me. It has a great, unique premise in which people extract and store their own souls, with Paul Giamatti playing a version of himself, an actor struggling to play a part because he feels his soul is weighing him down. It is going for the same sort of quirky but realistic feel of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation and Being John Malkovich (all written by Charlie Kaufman) but doesn’t come together in an entirely satisfying way as those movies do. I wanted a lot more from it instead of just hints and snippets of brilliance here and there. I still enjoyed it for its existential ideas and great cast (Giamatti is particularly good) but I felt it didn’t fulfill its potential.
-ROSS

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Movies We Watched

Sometimes we watch stuff that we want to talk just a little bit about, not a full review worth. These are those films. If any of the films reviewed are available on Netflix Instant Watch (US or Canada) or HuluPlus (US only), we’ll note that by putting a direct link below the capsule.

Hereafter poster

Hereafter

2010. Director: Clint Eastwood. Starring: Matt Damon, Cecile De France, Bryce Dallas Howard, Thiery Neuvic, Jay Mohr, Frankie McLaren, George McLaren, Richard Kind.

Clint Eastwood is perhaps more known now for being a director than an actor and he almost always delivers a handsomely made film, even if they don’t break any sort of new ground. But Hereafter sticks out like a sore thumb in his modern directorial repertoire – a too often overly sentimental, emotionally manipulative three-way story about death and what might come after. To be fair the blame falls on the script (by the usually excellent writer Peter Morgan, of such films as Frost/Nixon and The Last King of Scotland) and not on Eastwood’s direction, and the performances across the board are all very solid. But aside from a surprisingly bold but arguably entirely unnecessary (and tasteless?) Tsunami scene at the start, Hereafter follows the path you’d expect pretty much from start to finish. And the fact it had so much potential makes it all the more frustrating.
-ROSS

Aliens poster

Aliens

1986 USA. Director: James Cameron. Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Hendrickson, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein.

And with this I scratch another off my List of Shame, one that many many people have been nagging me to watch for a very long time. I had put it off after being less than enthused with the first film when I saw it ages ago (but I do want to rewatch it now), and because the shift from sci-fi to action that I’d heard about the second film didn’t really intrigue me. But I ended up quite enjoying it. It’s a great example of how to build a good and suspenseful action story; it says high-octane for most of the time, but it never loses sight of Ripley, and it allows her to gradually build into the action heroine she is at the end by using traits and skills established early on. The emotional throughline involving Newt is predictable, but effective. It’s interesting to compare this movie to Avatar, because lots of details from here turn up again, except here they all work much better within the narrative, with no over-earnest message-picture pandering. Similarly, this is a much better female empowerment narrative than a lot of so-called girl power movies in recent years, although my one complaint with the film is the over-determined machismo of the marines – I got the point, but some of those early boasting scenes went on far too long. Overall, though, a more than solid film that more sci-fi actioners should learn from.
-JANDY

(CANADA)

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Finite Focus: “Someone get me a fucking wiener before I die!” (One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest)

In this age of 3D glasses, product placement, and an abundance of needless special effects, I sometimes forget what it is that has always made me love movies so much. For me, I’m reminded during those rare moments when the actors completely take over a scene, where everyone and everything just clicks, and I become so engrossed in the moment that I am no longer aware that I am sitting on the couch in my living room in podunk Pennsylvania munching on reheated pizza. It’s those times when my analytical eye goes blind, when I forget that I’m watching people act, where I’m no longer examining the camerawork and mentally tearing apart the story for inconsistencies, and imagining the directors orchestrating the scene during production.

There are some scenes (and entire movies) that are just so perfect, that when I watch them or think about them, my mind pulsates with elation to the point where I think that one of these days when I watch it, my brain very well may explode from an overload of sheer awesomeness. This is one of those scenes. This is one of those movies. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not a movie that is a stranger to critical and commercial praise – it won five Oscars after all, including Best Picture – but sometimes the praise it has received makes me take for granted how great of a movie it really is. It is a showcase of brilliant acting, a “how-to” for any aspiring young actor out there, and a delicious treat for anyone who, like myself, watches films first and foremost for interesting characters and deeply layered performances.

This scene should be viewed in all Acting 101 classes.

p.s. Does anyone else find Brad Dourif grossly underrated as an actor?