Vratné lahve

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a.k.a. Empties / Returnable Bottles, by Jan Svěrák (2007)
Following a Flop and a Long Wait, Another Zdeněk Svěrák Masterpiece   (a slapdash review)

I hope comments formatted as bullets are OK; no real spoilers contained.

  • a masterpiece and return to true Zdeněk Svěrák form (after the ridiculous flop of Dark-Blue World, a woeful departure from Zdeněk Svěrák's typical comedy genre)
  • airborne views of the Czech countryside, with which Zdeněk Svěrák is in love – this time, closely integrated in the movie's climax, as opposed to similar shots in Zdeněk Svěrák's earlier movies – though breath-taking there as well, they used to serve as mere illustrations; now, they're part of the movie's message
  • the number OK-5060 on the balloon is highly symboling meaning to say you can still have a great life while in your 50s or 60s – which was Svěrák's age at the time the movie was written and produced – in fact, Zdeněk Svěrák is over 70 years old today (born in 1936), and looks astonishingly well for his age; metaphorical swelling and inflating of the balloon after falling to the ground – "dying", as if, but not yet, not quite; "there's still something left" in our lives
  • topic of religion, of sects; thoroughly serious topics dealt with
  • movie title, "returnable bottles", in line with the movie's title song: "I'd like to have another one, thank you" – meaning another life, to understand or enjoy even more of it than the first time around; so, human lives are like returnable bottles...
  • Zdeněk Svěrák's impeccable performance; he can be thoroughly serious whenever the need arises; there are some extremely poignant and thoroughly serious moments in the movie, particularly in depicting the (grand)parent-child relationship; Svěrák's inimitable enunciation, especially untranslatable: he can say an ordinary Czech sentence but deliver it in a way that makes it sound funny or witty, without being affected/theatrical in the least
  • two endings are contained in the movie: one US happy ending (an American movie would have ended right there); but, after the credits for the cast roll by, another ending is attached, a thoroughly European tongue-in-cheek one; in it also lies the movie's wisdom – life is always about compromises between what one dreams about (all those half-naked ladies in the train's compartment) and what truly is available in real life, and for what one must be genuinely thankful, because it is such a blessing, even though oftentimes humdrum on ordinary days – in Vratné lahve, this is the 40-year marriage between Pepa and his wife
  • a fascinating array of supporting characters, from the hilarious "talkative" ex-Major to the awkward youth at the paper press to the lustful mathematics teacher and the thoughtful, tender-hearted IT teacher, as well as the irresponsible, egotistic and shallow doctor; or the nearly immovable old lady without any money to buy her groceries
  • you can recognize the greatest masterpieces in art by their being capable of mixing thoroughly disparate elements: such as being funny and moving / serious at the same time; Vratné lahve manages this trick throughout; even though the basic plot is predictable enough (the man is about to lose his job due to automation), its implementation is glorious, and when Pepa gets the note saying, "Mr. Tkaloun, what are today's discounts?", this is a truly affecting moment; a similar one involves Pepa, in despair, placing his head and hands on the wall of his small booth, then realizing (thanks to the stains) how often his colleague must have been desperate before him, in just the same manner – needless to say, the despair was sexually motivated
  • fantastic direction by Jan Svěrák, with minuscule attention paid even to the smallest detail; whenever pretty girls are meant to be shown in Vratné lahve, they are not merely pretty, but gloriously beautiful; watch the 2 girls re-stocking the supermarket shelves, or even the very young girl sitting behind the cheeky schoolboy in the movie's opening scenes – all these are fantastically beautiful girls, even though they appear in the movie for barely a few seconds, or dozens of seconds; yet Jan Svěrák made sure every little thing in the background of the main action shown was just 100% perfect
  • classic, famous Zdeněk Svěrák wit apparent throughout Vratné lahve; just as Woody Allen has his style of humour that his unmistakably his, and Billy Wilder has his own, so does Zdeněk Svěrák. The quality of some of the jokes in Vratné lahve is on a par with now legendary jokes from movies like Kolja or The Elementary School or even as far back as My Sweet Little Village, Waiter, Run, and Hand Me the Pen, Mark. Ladislav Smoljak, Zdeněk Svěrák's close friend and collaborator since decades, has nothing more than 2 short cameos in Vratné lahve, but they certainly are memorable: funny and wise at the same time, capturing the spirit of our hurried era: "He's some sort of a messenger, but he sure looks like the participant in a race!"
  • wonderful camerawork: the movie manages to be both rural and urban at the same time; glorious views of Prague and the surrounding countryside, the rolling Czech land in its amazing verdure, again establishing the connection to the earlier Zdeněk Svěrák classics
  • fantastic title song, sung by Jaroslav Uhlíř, the same man as the by now legendary title tune from Waiter, Run, made almost 30 years ago in the 1980s! One may only wish that both Vratné lahve the movie and its title song become classics of the same calibre as both Waiter, Run and its title song; Vratné lahve thoroughly deserves the status of a classic, even though it is only about 9 months old at the time when I'm writing this sentence!
  • the running theme through pretty much all of Zdeněk Svěrák's movies is that of sexual obsession, and it takes center stage here in Vratné lahve, too; again, most closely remindin the viewer of the early 1980s masterpiece, Waiter, Run, thanks to the numerous "fantasy sequences", so similar to those so frequently experienced by the bookstore manager in Waiter, Run.
  • another connection to earlier Zdeněk Svěrák classics (The Elementary School, Hand Me the Pen, Mark) is the opening of Vratné lahve – the topic of teaching, of controling the pupils' discipline, or failing to control it by the teacher; however, over 30 or nearly 20 years have passed since those earlier movies; so, the school scenes here in Returnable Bottles are not merely re-hashed scenes from the earlier classics, but are thoroughly topical and up-to-date: see the references to the school's sponsor, the "freedom" required by the cheeky schoolboy, giving his excuse for being "not disciplined enough" as, "This is common in America." Those are unique moments for Returnable Bottles, as they show that this is a Czech movies made in the 2000s; no such lines or dialogues could have occurred in a Czech movie from the early 1990s, let alone one made under the Communist regime in the 1980s! The school's principal, too, sports a flashy LCD monitor on her desk, underscoring the movie's modern nature, despite its two main heroes being a grandfather and a grandmother and their relationship that can sometimes be difficult
  • picturesque living arrangements; just as Mr. Louka in Kolya lived in a sort of bell-tower offering him a breath-taking view of the rooftops of Prague – so do Pepa and his wife live in a house overlooking a railway line, so that the sound of noisy train engines at all times of the day (or night!) have become commonplace in their apartment; this is highly evocative and poetic
  • the sly making fun of Latin-American TV novellas, specifically, here, the famed Argentinian TV novella Milagros
  • great scene occurs when Pepa declares if there's no work to be done in heaven, he's not interested in heaven; one can see: the essence of human work (which Pepa equals with life as such, with meaningful existence) lies in the human element; shoud Pepa be hidden behind the automated bottle-collecting machine, preventing him from establishing the warm, direct human contact with his fellow human beings (prominently among them, all those shapely young females) – well, Pepa is not interested in such work that would isolate him from other people, and flatly denies his interest in any such job, not even part-time; his next job will be one where he may, once again, interact with fellow human beings directly
  • beside being funny in its reflection of school life and teachers' lives, the movie also seriously examines the problem of public education; there's a genuinely tragic note in hearing Pepa say he's been more content among bottles than among adolescent school-children; and beside being funny, it is also tragic to see Pepa's daughter proclaim she'd not even consider dating a teacher, as these usually earn so little money (especially in post-Communist countries such as the Czech Republic)
  • for the Slovak viewer, it's a special joy to observe the grand dame Božidara Turzonovová in her role of the widow looking for a man far less talkative than her former husband; plus, the credits list Richard Muller's classic Slovak pop song ›Nebude to ľahké‹ (›It Won't Be Easy‹), whose lyrics deal with the (non-)breakup of a marriage (a perfect fit for what Vratné lahve itself is all about!), I somehow failed to notice Muller's song in the movie; perhaps I was too engrossed in watching the action...
  • amazing performance by the little boy actor, Robin Soudek
  • religion, for once, becomes a topic in a Zdeněk Svěrák movie; the ›Our Father‹ scene both funny and moving, serious; religion being seriously contemplated – that must be a first in a Zdeněk Svěrák movie!
  • fantastic performance by Pavel Landovský as the ex-major
  • parallel to the French hit movie Amélie (although the idea for Vratné lahve was conceived earlier than the French movie): the main protagonist of both movies works in a lowest-class job, but engages in match-making on behalf of others (their colleagues / customers), although they themselves are unlucky / unsuccessful in their attempts at partner relationships
  • great moment, and perfectly played by Zdeněk Svěrák, occurs in his initial conversation with the store manager and his secretary; they laugh about the ex-Major, and the ordinary, everyday cruelty of ordinary people becomes apparent; one can see the realization dawning upon Svěrák's face, even as attempts to preserve the appearances, laughing with the two others; but the sadness behind his smile and laugh is almost palpable
  • a gaffe: character error – Eliška is supposed to be a professional teacher of German, yet in the German sentences she speaks in the course of the movie, her German has a heavy Czech accent, much worse than that of her supposed student. (Listen to her pronunciation of the word "schön", for example.) And, when Eliška is asked to translate the sentence, "I work for the city administration," her German translation makes no grammatic sense ("an der Stadtamt").
  • perfect blend of the movie's exquisite musical score (includes lots of snippets of famous classical music) with the movie's action, and with the movie's astounding aerial camera-work by Vladimír Smutný; even the picturesque clouds in the sky seem to move to the rhythm of the classical strains of music
  • superb, many-faceted (comedic and movingly dramatic) performance by Daniela Kolářová in the grandmother's role; surely worthy of at least a nomination for an award for an actress's performance in a leading role!

Rating: Image:A-p.gif (= A+ on a scale of A+ to F-)
Faterson 11:42, 18 February 2007 (CET)
[original writing time between 00:25 & 01:15:13 a.m. (CET) on Friday, 11 January 2008]
[abridged version of this review also posted in IMDb's comments section for Vratné lahve]

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