English Strawberries

'English Strawberries' plays more like a made-for-TV feature than a theatrical one.

With:
With: Aleksei Bardukov, Ivan Luptak, Marie Stipkova, Viktor Preiss, Pavla Tomicova, Nina Diviskova, Richard Zevel, Miloslav Mejzlik, Veaceslav Burlac, Serghei Gherciu, Alexander Minaev. (Czech, Russian dialogue)

The Aug. 21, 1968, Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia is shown from the p.o.v. of a multigenerational Prague family and a defecting Russian soldier in the bland comic drama “English Strawberries.” Playing more like a made-for-TV feature than a theatrical one, this absurdist tale compares unfavorably with Jan Hrebejk’s 1999 “Cosy Dens,” which dealt with the same era in a sharper, funnier fashion. Still, the fruits of director Vladimir Drha’s labor might be picked by second-tier fests and national film weeks. Pic opened in the Czech Republic last November and went out in Slovakia in April.

On the morning Soviet troops arrive, 20-ish Tomas (Ivan Luptak, uncharismatic), is set to depart for England. His stated plan to harvest strawberries is just a cover for his intention to emigrate.

As his parents (Viktor Preiss, Pavla Tomicova) talk of the German Occupation and frantically prepare their own means of resistance, oddly unconcerned Tomas uses the delay of his train as an opportunity to try to bed g.f. Tanya (Marie Stipkova). Tanya, however, has her own worries.

As the young couple cuddle in a remote hunting cabin, they’re interrupted by Pyetya (Aleksei Bardukov), a Russian soldier on the run. Confused by a shop sign naming a German proprietor, Pyetya believes he’s already in the West and wants to pursue his dream of a car-repair business in Biarritz.

Unfortunately, the lackluster script by Martin Safranek never comes close to exploiting the full dramatic potential of the historical moment. Moreover, a subplot involving two younger boys (Richard Zevel, Miloslav Mejzlik) who fire a fake gun at the soldiers is not well integrated into the rest of the narrative.

Hampered by the slack writing, TV vet Drha fails to create any much-needed tension with the pic’s visuals, pacing or performances. Thesping from the adults is mostly over-broad, although Nina Diviskova is a treat as Tomas’ tart, thoroughly communist grandmother. Of the younger set, bilingual Stipkova and charmer Bardukov acquit themselves best, creating a credible chemistry.

Pic’s most interesting aspect is its incorporation of black-and-white archival footage from the invasion and the on-location shoot of the American film “The Bridge at Remagen.” Nicely detailed interiors and vintage songs, though overused on the soundtrack, provide additional period flavor.

Vladimir Krepelka’s golden-hued lensing leads the serviceable craft credits.

English Strawberries

Czech Republic-Ukraine-Slovakia

Production: A Falcon (in Czech Republic) release of a First Film, Czech Television (Czech Republic)/MMG (Ukraine)/Continental Film (Slovakia)/Filmport (Ukraine) production, in cooperation with Postovni sporitelna, with the support of the Czech State Fund for Cinematography, Ateliery Bonton Zlin, Tornado Lou. (International sales: Simply Cinema, Prague.) Produced by Pavel Melounek, David Prudky, Jaroslav Kucera, Milos Petana, Michal Drobny, Viktor Vilhelm. Directed by Vladimir Drha. Screenplay, Martin Safranek.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W), Vladimir Krepelka; editor, Boris Machytka; music, Tomas Klus; production designer, Ivana Speldova; costume designer, Jakub Kohl; sound (Dolby Digital), Robert Slezak. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 17, 2009. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- market, Moscow Film Festival.) Running time: 114 MIN.

With: With: Aleksei Bardukov, Ivan Luptak, Marie Stipkova, Viktor Preiss, Pavla Tomicova, Nina Diviskova, Richard Zevel, Miloslav Mejzlik, Veaceslav Burlac, Serghei Gherciu, Alexander Minaev. (Czech, Russian dialogue)

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