MEDIEVAL (2022)

September 9, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. There are some actors I follow simply because I admire their work. Ben Foster earned that loyalty with his performances in such films as LEAVE NO TRACE (2018), HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016), and 3:10 TO YUMA (2007). Here he is cast as Jan Zizka, the legendary 15th century Czech icon whom historians have pegged as having never lost a battle. At the helm is Czech writer-director Petr Jakl whose previous films did not come close to this scale. The list of credited screenwriters includes director Jakl, his father Petr Jakl Sr, Marek Dobes, Michal Petrus, Kevin Bernhardt, and Petr Bok. I don’t pretend to know which of these writers had the greatest impact, but what I can report is that the film looks great and includes some of the best battle scenes you’ll find in any film set in the Middle Ages.

Tyranny.” The narrator opens the film with that word, followed by an explanation of the ongoing battle for the power and control of the Catholic Church. That narrator is Lord Boresh, played by 2-time Oscar winner Michael Caine, who has paid Jan Zizka and his band of rebels to protect him from assassination attempts. Director Jakl doesn’t make us wait long for the first skirmish, and it gives us a taste of what’s to come. These are no-holds-barred battles where bones and faces are crushed, and horses toppled into rivers. This is Italy 1402.

After the battle, Zizka heads to Prague to reunite with his brother, and while he’s there, the political maneuvering and power-brokering is occurring. Those involved include Lord Boresh, the King of Bohemia (Karel Roden, ROCKNROLLA, 2008), his half-brother, the King of Hungary (Matthew Goode, THE IMITATION GAME, 2014), and nobleman Rosenberg (Til Schweiger, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, 2009). When Rosenberg refuses to cooperate, a plan is hatched to kidnap his fiancé Katherine (Sophie Lowe, so good in BLOW THE MAN DOWN, 2019), who also happens to be the niece of the King of France. It may seem challenging to keep the political alliances straight, but fear not, double-crossing and backstabbing adds to the fun.

Katherine is in fact kidnapped. And then kidnapped from the kidnappers. And then rescued … well, you get the idea. It seems her own allegiance transitions as she discovers the true character of her fiancé. Plus, it seems she walks at least 42 miles during all of this. What really makes this one worth watching are the battle scenes, including a face-off between Zizka and his mentor, the intimidating Torak (Roland Moller, ATOMIC BLONDE, 2017). The fights are bloody and gruesome and violent. The brutality is as realistic as you could want, while cinematographer Jesper Toffner captures these scenes in the most visceral manner possible … we are not let off the hook from the damage caused by swords, axes, maces, and mauls.

Director Jakl highlights Zizka as a military strategist and tactician, and not just a brute. It’s this part of the personality that best fits Foster’s talent. It’s difficult to know how much of this true story is accurate and how much is legend (always print the legend!), but the push for religious and political power and control seems a common topic regardless of century.

Opening in theaters on September 9, 2022

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THE AFFAIR (2021)

March 3, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. The world famous Villa Tugendhat is a physical, emotional, and visual metaphor for the collapse of the Czech Republic in this film from director Julius Sevcik (LOST GIRLS AND LOVE HOTELS, 2020). Writer Andrew Shaw (VOICE FROM THE STONE, 2017) adapted the script from Simon Mawer’s 2009 best-selling book, “The Glass Room”. The family melodrama is fictionalized, but the house itself is the character around which everything else revolves. And what a house it is.

Viktor (Claes Bang, TV mini-series “Dracula”, and THE LAST VERMEER, 2020) commissions noted architect Von Abt (Karel Roden) to build a home for Viktor’s new bride, Liesel (Hanna Alstrom, the KINGSMAN movies). Liesel works closely with the architect to create a modern masterpiece that is the envy of their Czechia town of Brno. The heart of the stunning structure is a glass room, causing Abt to ask Liesel, “Are you ready to live in the light?” Liesel’s close friend Hana (Carice Van Houten, LOST GIRLS AND LOVE HOTELS, 2020), who wishes they were even closer, spends a great deal of time visiting at the home. Liesel’s bliss is shaken when she discovers Viktor is having an affair with their nanny, Kata (Alexandra Borbely, ON BODY AND SOUL, 2017).

If she thought that was the worst thing that could happen, Liesel soon finds things much worse. She and her Jewish husband escape to Zurich just as the Nazi occupation occurs. Hana and her Jewish husband are not so fortunate, and not only is she separated from her lifelong friend, she is forced to do what she must to protect her husband, and that includes an affair with a German contractor named Stahl (Roland Moller, THE LAST VERMEER, 2020). It seems all of our characters are doing what they must, and they all seem to be thinking of someone other than the one they are with.

The second half of the film is much stronger than the first, as real tension exits. Ms. Van Houten is superb in her performance as Hana, and she carries this part of the story. It’s through her eyes that we see the transformations of Liesel’s beautiful home. The symmetry with what’s happening in the country is unmistakable, and Hana is at the heart of the film’s message … love endures and overcomes. The issue with the film is that we never really connect with any character but Hana. Viktor and Liesel are out of sight for an extended period of time, leaving us with what is a great idea for a film – but one that lacks the necessary depth.

Regardless of that, it’s a gorgeous film to watch … thanks in no small part to the work of cinematographer Martin Strba. The film stretches from the early 1930’s to the late 1960’s and the production design is spot on. Some interesting notes include Villa Tugendhat was actually designed by German architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, and the Tugendhat family did actually flee the home. German plane designer Willy Messerschmitt actually lived in the house while it was being used as a design studio, much like the character Stahl in the film. It’s a shame the script doesn’t do justice to the cast and the home, but this one falls short of being a must see.

Available VOD on March 5, 2021

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