Sunday, 22 May 2011

Say Anything...

49. Say Anything... (1989)
Dir: Cameron Crowe

The 80s High School movie genre is often boiled down to just two words: John Hughes. While he undoubtedly wrote and/or directed the most famous examples in his flawed but infinitely enjoyable films 'The Breakfast Club' (1985), 'Pretty in Pink' (1986, dir: Howard Deutch) and 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' (1986), it would be lazy to attribute the whole High School genre to this one proponent (it is also worth mentioning that Hughes should not be thought of as only working within the teen genre. He was also involved in writing and/or directing many family/adult films that were every bit as enjoyable as his High School movies, such as 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' (1987), 'Uncle Buck' (1989) and the National Lampoon's 'Vacation' series (1983-89)).

The 80s film work of Cameron Crowe offers an excellent alternative to Hughes' wish fulfillment movie-cum-music-videos. Crowe is unfortunately best known for 'Jerry Maguire' (1996), a confused, draggy romantic comedy that throws itself emphatically into the mawkish sentimentalism that Crowe's best work so skillfully avoids. He also wrote and directed one of my favourite films of the 00s, the semi-autobiographical 'Almost Famous' (2000). But before all this, Crowe began his life in the film industry with a handful of teen pics. He began by writing the script for Amy Heckerling's great 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' (1982), a raunchier precursor to the John Hughes ouevre which launched the careers of many future stars including Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Forest Whitaker. He followed this up by scripting Art Linson's little seen 'The Wild Life' (1984) but it was only a matter of time before Crowe got the chance to direct a film himself and, when this chance arrived, he pulled out all the stops to write as good a script as possible.

'Say Anything...' stands head-and-shoulders above most films in the High School genre as a realistic, sophisticated comedy-drama about the belated romance between a directionless but charismatic academic-underachiever and a studious, Oxford-bound but socially-inexperienced valedictorian. It differs significantly from the average High School film in several important ways. To begin with, 'Say Anything...' opens at the end of High School. The film is set during the summer following graduation which immediately eliminates staples of the genre such as the High School Prom or goofing off by the lockers. This is a High School movie in which we never get inside the High School. There is a sense of melancholy throughout 'Say Anything...', the feeling of a bygone era the details of which we were never privy to.

The most important and effective characteristic that sets 'Say Anything...' apart as a more mature film is its inclusion of a fully-rounded, pivotal adult character. One of the most famous lines in 'The Breakfast Club' is 'When you grow up, your heart dies' and few 80s teen films seemed interested in exploring adult viewpoints in any more depth than that. Adult characters in John Hughes films were usually either bufoonish villains like Dean Vernon in 'The Breakfast Club' and Dean Rooney in 'Ferris Bueller...' or oblivious parents who could never hope to understand the importance of their offspring's dreams, like Cliff Nelson in 'Some Kind of Wonderful' (1987). 'Say Anything...' focuses more closely on the father-daughter relationship between Jim Court (John Mahoney) and the apple-of-his-eye daughter Diane (Ione Skye), whom he spoils rotten and would do anything to please. Only in 'Pretty in Pink' did Hughes come close to such an interesting adult-teen relationship, in the touching scenes between Molly Ringwald and her father Harry Dean Stanton. But even those were only a captivating aside whereas 'Say Anything...' makes Mahoney every bit as important and fully-rounded as the younger characters.

The basic plot of 'Say Anything...' goes thus: following graduation, Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) decides to seize his last chance to ask out the seemingly untouchable Diane Court (Ione Skye). When he rings her up to invite her to a graduation party, Diane has to look up Lloyd's picture in the yearbook to remember who he is but she is won over by his persistent charm and a curiosity about her fellow graduates and the social experience she missed out on through excessive studying. Though her adoring father Jim, with whom she has such a close relationship that they feel they can literally say anything to each other, is skeptical, Diane attends the party and feels she has lived more in one night than her whole time at school. Keen to experience more, she agrees to see Lloyd again and, over the summer period, the two fall in love, much to the consternation of Jim, who feels she should be focusing on her imminent Oxford scholarship and not lowering herself to spending all her time with an unambitious underachiever like Lloyd.

That's the set-up but 'Say Anything...' takes the audience in many unexpected directions. For instance, one might expect the father character to be overbearing and hotheaded, leading to several shouty, dramatic confrontations between himself and the boy who's trying to take his daughter from him. Not so. Crowe's subtle writing creates a much more realistic and involving relationship between Jim and Lloyd, observing the fact that social politeness usually keeps melodrama at bay in real life. Far from hating Lloyd, Jim seems mildly charmed by him and a grudging respect develops, even though he will never consider him anywhere near worthy of his pedestal-planted daughter. Diane, meanwhile, spends the film undergoing a transition into adulthood, ironically by moving away from the adult influence that has kept her arrested in a state of constant teendom. Crowe examines this complex triangle of various kinds of love with a deft, delicate touch, wringing out all the drama you'd hope for without resorting to screaming matches and slapped faces. He also brings in a very unusual and unexpected plot element midway through the film which takes one character's storyline in a very unexpected and narratively effective direction.

'Say Anything...' is famous for one image which constitutes a matter of seconds of the film: John Cusack holding a boombox above his head, blasting out Peter Gabriel's 'In your Eyes' in an attempt to win Ione Skye. Its an iconic, much-parodied moment which has perhaps become a bit of an albatross for the film because it sets up the wrong expectations when taken as a stand alone image. When it appears in the film it feels entirely consistent with character and plot and is a nicely executed moment but taken out of context it appears to be thoroughy sappy and over-the-top. The boombox scene has lead many (presumably those who haven't seen the film) to dismiss 'Say Anything...' as a cutesie teen romance rather than the intelligent, dense character piece it is.

For all I've said about the melancholy edge and character depth displayed by 'Say Anything...', I should also point out that it is as much fun as any other High School film too. Many of the comforting touchstones of the genre are still one display. There is still the obligatory party scene, the nostalgic soundtrack and the gallery of guitar weilding, beer-swilling supporting players. The standout among these is Lili Taylor as Lloyd's unconventional best friend Corey. Ever present as a confidante, Corey also sets the precedent for the film's meditations on heartache and the importance of growing-up, in a short scene early in the film in which she rejects the advances of the former boyfriend who drove her to a suicide attempt. Taylor is both funny and sad in a broad character sketch which juxtaposes nicely with the deeper examination of the leads.

Of the three leads, Ione Skye fairs the worst. Her performance is a tad one-note, lacking the increasing vibrancy her social transformation demands. To be fair, the role may be a little underwritten in comparison with the male leads (not an uncommon factor in High School movies written by men) and the range of mood changes it requires is a tough order but Skye emerges as just adequate, although she is never distractingly bad. John Mahoney's performance as Jim is an impressive display of diverse emotions. Jim goes from proud and content to worried, desperate, petulant and angry but Mahoney never oversells it and his emotional responses are nowhere near as abruptly portrayed as my inadequate little list suggests. Crucially, Mahoney manages to make an audience of people who will always think of him as Martin Crane forget about 'Frasier' altogether for the duration of 'Say Anything...' (despite the fact that Bebe Neuwirth (aka Lilith) also turns up at one point as a school counsellor).

But few would argue against the fact that the defining performance of 'Say Anything...' is John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler. In Lloyd, Crowe has created one of the most likable characters in film history and the casting of the part was crucial. It required someone with an unconventional but disarming charm and Cusack fit the bill perfectly. Although he undeniably possessed leading man looks and charisma, Cusack has always been a bit left of centre in both his acting style and choice of projects. Cusack was no stranger to the teen film, with early supporting roles in 'Class' (1983) and John Hughes's dreadful, tasteless and shapeless debut 'Sixteen Candles' (1984) giving way to leading performances in Rob Reiner's winning 'The Sure Thing' (1985) and Savage Steve Holland's genuine oddity 'Better Off Dead' (1985). But in Lloyd Dobler he got a chance to really show off his potential as a leading man. Cusack, in his long trenchcoat and with his endearingly eloquent case of verbal diarrhoea, is the perfect realisation of the unconventional but well-loved Lloyd. His eleventh-hour, go-for-broke romance with Diane is thoroughly convincing and never cops out by evoking destiny or love-at-first-sight. Lloyd's romantic success is entirely down to Lloyd's actions, decisions and determination and, cosmic forces be damned, that's romantic enough for me.

High School movies often end with tacked-on climaxes designed to fulfull commercial expectations that rather let the rest of the film down. When 'Say Anything...' ends, there's a rare sense of satisfaction as plotpoints are tied-up in a satisfactory manner which doesn't feel too pat and leaves room for speculation about future events. It's a fitting end to a beautifully realised script, directed with straightforward skill by Crowe. Those who come to 'Say Anything...' via the boombox image will probably be extremely surprised by the film they get. I remember as a teenage fan of John Hughes, seeing the film for the first time and not knowing what to make of it. I now know why. The complex period of transition between school and college which it examines is best understood by those who have already gone through that phase. While it can be enjoyed by any age-group, 'Say Anything...' is ultimately a teen film for adults.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Flakylpa Grand Prix

48. Flakylpa Grand Prix (Pinchcliffe Grand Prix) (1975)
Dir: Ivo Caprino

It never ceases to amaze me what gems can be turned up by those willing to forage deep enough into cinema history. As an animation enthusiast, the discovery of Ivo Caprino's Norwegian stop-motion animated film 'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' was a dream come true. Although it is largely unknown in Britain, 'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' remains the biggest box office hit of all time in Norway, where it sold 5.5 million tickets in a country with a population of 4.9 million! It is also shown on TV every Christmas in Norway in the same way that Wallace and Gromit make annual festive airings over here. I mention Wallace and Gromit specifically because 'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' seems to be a strong influence on Nick Park's dynamic duo. It is also an acknowledged influence on George Lucas, who borrowed from the film for the podrace sequence in 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace' (1999).

The plot of 'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' is simple, even if some elements sound a tad bizarre. Bicycle repair man Theodore Rimspoke lives at the top of very large mountain, the irony being that no-one would go that far to get their bike fixed, especially since they couldn't ride it! Consequently, Theodore spends most of his time tinkering with amateur inventions. Theodore lives with his two animal companions, Sonny Duckworth, an optimistic bird, and Lambert, a melancholy, nervous hedgehog. Seeing in the news that Theodore's former assistant, Rudolph Gore-Slimey, has stolen the plans for his racing car engine and subsequently become Formula One World Champion, the trio set about building a rival car called Il Tempo Gigante, with which to challenge Gore-Slimey's ill-gotten World Champion title.

'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' began life as a proposed 25 minute TV special based on the characters of cartoonist Kjell Aukrust. However, a year and a half into production the project was shut down by TV bosses who felt it was not working. With puppets and sets already made, Ivo Caprino's son Remo suggested they use them to make a full length feature film. And so work began on 'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix', which took three and a half years to make and was made almost entirely by a five person team. The results are astonishingly charming. The film recalls the beautiful stop-motion TV animations of Oliver Postgate and his contempories and is shot through with the sort of eccentricities and unpatronising language that are ironed out of most current children's entertainment.

'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' is not without its flaws. Those who are not impressed by the magic of stop-motion animation will likely become bored by the slow pace of the first hour. A good forty minutes focuses on the acquisition of sponsorship for Theodore's racing team, which comes in the form of an Arab oil sheik, a stock comedy character of that era which has since fallen out of favour for obvious reasons. Other characters in the film are also a little ill-judged. Sonny Duckworth's relentless chirpy optimism gets a bit wearing after a while and Lambert the depressed hedgehog is simply one of the weirdest, most disturbing creations I've ever come across.

But these minor niggles seem academic if you let the magic of 'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' take you. For instance, even in the slow moving early scenes there are little gestures and witty lines that keep viewers like myself constantly delighted and the sets and puppets are beautiful to look at. I adored watching different characters making the long trip up and down the mountain in various vehicles, particularly the Sheik's shaky journey in his solid gold car. In a film that is far from a character-led endeavor, there are still creations to relish in the likably no-nonsense straightman Theodore, the despicable villain Gore-Slimey and the Sheik's gorilla employee who fills the roles of bouncer, chaffeur, mechanic and drummer as and when the situation calls for it!

'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' will be of special interest to car lovers and especially Formula One fans. I am neither but the joy I got from the animation and incredible action sequences, I can well imagine being mirrored in Grand Prix lovers by the exquisitely realised atmosphere of a race day and the fetishistic focus on the building of the car. After its slow start, the film begins to pick up pace with the construction of Il Tempo Gigante, a midnight sabotage scene and a chaotic, superbly inventive and exhiliratingly unneccesary musical interlude! But the real draw for most viewers will be the race itself. After the lovably gentle opening hour, the Grand Prix of the title takes up the entire final third of the film and is every bit as exciting as you might hope. A surprising and delightful treat for those watching the British dub is that the voiceover duties for the last half hour are almost entirely taken over by none other than Formula One legend Murray Walker, who provides a running commentary on the race.

Murray's presence adds authenticity but 'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' hinges on the climactic race sequence being something special and ultimately that description proves to be an understatement. Caprino and cameraman Charley Patey use several cinematic techniques (including the most effective use of back-projection I've ever seen) to create some of the most jaw-dropping, high-speed stop-motion animation of all time. Suspense is superbly built up through a number of plotpoints including an undetected piece of sabotage and several 'Wacky Races'-like dirty tricks, all of which create a thunderously gripping, celebratory finale which is one of the best race sequences I've come across in any medium.

'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' is an animated treasure worth discovering. It's mega-popularity in Norway is well deserved and it's only a shame that it has not been widely distributed in Britain as I can easily picture it becoming a festive staple in this country too. Whether you watch it in its original Norwegian or in the English langauge dub, 'Pinchcliffe Grand Prix' is a gem. An oddity that should satisfy fans of animation and Formula One in any country.

Friday, 13 May 2011


47. ...if (1968)
Dir: Lindsay Anderson

There are many people who would rather remember the 1960s as a time characterised exclusively by peace, love and great music. Even those who acknowledge that it was otherwise often deliberately misremember a time of euphoric, triumphant political and social change rather than a time of extreme unrest and violence, the like of which is unavoidable if major change is to be brought about. It is an undeniably exhilarating era to view retrospectively but it is certainly not one I would have relished being directly involved in. While 1967 is nostalgically remembered for the Summer of Love, it was also a time when the causes of 1968’s explosive events were reaching a head. 1968 began with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and went on to be characterised by an unbelievable amount of monumental events including the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Sorbonne student riots in Paris and the Tlatelolco massacre ten days before the Mexico City Olympic Games.

Against this historical backdrop, the film industry seemed to be pushing for a regression into cosier times. While the previous year’s Oscars were dominated by the visceral brilliance of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, ‘The Graduate’ and ‘In the Heat of the Night’ and the following year would award the top honour to the X-Rated ‘Midnight Cowboy’, 1968 was one of the blandest Oscar years ever. Best Picture was awarded to Carol Reed’s charming but hardly electric ‘Oliver!’ and the other nominees included a costume drama, a Shakespeare adaptation and a musical biopic. This was hardly representative of the dominant mood of the year and was quite probably a reaction against it. But if the countercultural revolution was being ignored by the Academy, there was certainly an audience demand for films that addressed the burning issues of the day and this resulted in a small British film that Paramount almost shelved becoming one of the big critical and commercial hits of the year.

Lindsay Anderson’s ‘if…’ remains one of the most powerful anti-establishment statements in cinema history. Inspired by Jean Vigo’s classic short film ‘Zero de conduite’ (1933), ‘if…’ begins with a new term at a British public school and the arrival of Jute (Sean Bury), a shy, polite little boy who does not know the rigid rules and traditions of the institution and is gradually assimilated into the system. In contrast with Jute’s progress, we also follow the iconoclastic adventures of three non-conformist sixth-form boys, lead by Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell, in his debut role). These three boys are determined to assert their individuality while the school, its stuffy ideals personified by head prefect Rowntree (Robert Swann), is determined to keep them in line. Something’s got to give and it eventually does in an unforgettably violent climax.

‘if…’ was shot at Cheltenham College in Gloucestershire during term time so many of the pupils in the film are actual schoolchildren who Anderson made use of between lessons. Although some of their performances are understandably amateurish, it’s a great joy to see them obviously relishing the opportunity to appear in such a subversive film. Extra relish is added by the fact that Cheltenham College was Anderson’s own alma mater and that they were not fully aware of the nature of the film that was being shot in their halls (the script submitted to them certainly omitted the climactic massacre). The larger roles are more carefully cast. Malcolm McDowell makes a particularly strong impression as Mick but Robert Swann is also extremely effective as the forceful head prefect Rowntree, a man whose world depends so strongly on established conventions that the threat of their interruption unleashes the sadist in him. The supporting roles of the staff are played with quirky comic panache by a gallery of great British character actors such as Arthur Lowe, Mona Washbourne and, in one of my favourite cameos ever, Graham Crowden as a History master who cycles through the corridors.

In terms of narrative structure, ‘if…’ is extremely loose. Anderson’s camera roams the halls and dorms of the school, picking out various everyday activities with a documentary realism that owes much to the films of the British New Wave in which Anderson cut his teeth (with 1963’s ‘This Sporting Life’). However, this realism is offset by a lurking sense of the surreal which increases throughout the film until the audience becomes unable to determine exactly what is real and what is fantasy. The film also switches between colour and black & white sequences, a technique which, while apparently due to little more than financial and technical considerations, only furthers the disconcerting inability to get a handle on the film. The recognisable is constantly penetrated by the unfamiliar. A boy drinks tea in the bathtub, his poise suggesting that of a fully-clothed person in a drawing room. A communal bullying is observed by a toilet-cubicle guitarist. A visit to a cafĂ© turns momentarily into a graphic sex scene. Such happenings increasingly take over the film until the realistic is subordinate to the dreamlike.

The surrealist approach taken by David Sherwin’s brilliant screenplay and Anderson’s indelible but subtle imagery (the only exception to this subtlety being a living corpse in a coffin-like drawer, a last-minute touch that seems like an awkward stumble into Pythonesque silliness which the film otherwise avoids) is entirely appropriate for what is essentially an allegorical film. Yes, ‘if…’ certainly intends to attack the traditions of the public school system but a straightforward approach to narrative would ultimately have made it seem like this was the film’s only target. Frequent excursions into the patently unreal clue us in that this is merely one representative reality, a model for questioning numerous institutions and conventions. Within the confines of the school, Anderson includes several figureheads of these sacred-cow institutions including the school chaplain (religion), a visiting General (the military) and even some medieval knights (history), all of whom march together in a symbolic parade towards the film’s end.

‘if…’ famously closes with a firefight between the rogue pupils and the rest of the school in which numerous authority figures, including the school’s headmaster (Peter Jeffrey), are mercilessly wiped out. For the counterculture audiences who made ‘if…’ such a hit, this scene was the cinematic catharsis they had been waiting for. In terms of a message, it goes little way beyond merely implying that the old order needs taking out by a new way of thinking and stops short of suggesting specific solutions. Whoever should take over from the stuffy sadists of the previous establishment, it certainly shouldn’t be the borderline psychotic Mick Travis who, for all his admirable individualism also makes statements like “There is no such thing as a wrong war. Violence and revolution are the only pure acts”. This is the sort of wrongheaded narcissist whom John Lennon targeted in the song ‘Revolution’, the bloodthirsty upstart who mistook that song’s plea for a pacifist approach to peace as a suggestion that revolutionaries should back down from their causes. But in not taking the easy route of making his revolutionaries the unquestioned “good guys”, Anderson created a much more astute and complex film which acknowledges the grey area so often ignored by biased texts.

To merely concentrate on ‘if…’s most famous sequence (as so many reviews tend to do) is to do the film a disservice. There are many equally excellent longer scenes that punctuate the fleeting, sketch-like puzzle pieces that make up the majority of the film. Mick’s theft of a motorbike and subsequent joyride, for instance, is a crucial scene which opens the film up and takes us briefly outside the confines of the school in much the same invigorating spirit as the fishing trip sequence in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (1975). Later, when Mick places a plastic bag over his head to see how long he can go without air, the suffocation metaphor is all the more apparent for the liberating juxtaposition of the bike ride. But my favourite scene of all is when Mick receives a prolonged session of corporal punishment from the prefects. Adopting a Christ like position over a balance beam (this, and the subsequent forgiveness Mick offers his victimiser, provide further parallels with ‘… Cuckoo’s Nest’s messianic imagery), he is subjected to a brutal caning twice as long and three times as vicious as that meted out to his peers. This scene is both hard to watch and impossible to look away from, encapsulating the tone of ‘if…’ in a matter of minutes.

The influence of ‘if…’ can be seen in many subsequent British films including Peter Medak’s similarly establishment-baiting ‘The Ruling Class’ (1972), the tragi-comic tone of Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ (1985) and the late-60s critiquing of Bruce Robinson’s ‘Withnail and I’ (1986). Although it was denounced by one British ambassador as “an insult to the nation” and by Lord Brabourne as “the most evil and perverted script I’ve ever read”, ‘if…’ certainly provided a much-needed cinematic representation of a counterculture bored by their country’s film industry. Echoing the plea of the lead character in 1968’s Best Picture winner, the British public were begging for something more and, despite the Secombe-esque disbelief this request prompted in some quarters, Lindsay Anderson answered their prayers.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Zitra Vistanu a Oparim si Cajem (Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea)

46. Zitra Vistanu a Oparim si Cajem (Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea) (1977)
Dir: Jindrich Polak

It's always a wonderful experience to finally see an acknowledged classic of cinema and discover that its reputation is well deserved. I still remember the first time I was blown away by 'Citizen Kane' (1941), the night I first watched 'Taxi Driver' and the experience of falling in love with Charlie Chaplin. But perhaps an even greater thrill for the cinephile is the discovery of a completely overlooked classic, something you've had to work hard to unearth and which fills you with the satisfying sense that you're one of the few people in the world who has seen this lost gem. The subsequent joy of introducing these discoveries to others and watching them light up with the same sense of wonder and excitement is an unrivalled pleasure for the film enthusiast.

My most recent experience of this kind came courtesy of Jindrich Polak's Czech sci-fi comedy 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea'. The strange history of this film's miniscule cult following is just one of the many bizarre delights that make it so fascinating. On 16 January 1982 (a little under half a year before I entered this world), BBC One's scheduled airing of 'Match of the Day' was delayed and football fans were left with time to fill and only three channels to choose from. Oddly enough, the other two channels were both premiering sci-fi films. ITV was showing American space thriller 'Capricorn One' (1978) but the more adventurous BBC Two opted to give 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' its first and only British screening. As a result, the film has developed an unlikely following among a small group of specific football fans who found themselves drawn into the film's strange and captivating world, so much so that many forsook their beloved sport to see the end of 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea'!

It's hard to imagine a time when there were only three TV channels to choose from (I grew up with the luxury of four!) but it's even harder to imagine a time when any of them would schedule a Czech sci-fi comedy that never had a British release, in a prime-time slot. Whatever inspired this commendably adventurous choice, 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' was never repeated on British TV again and was never given a British video or DVD release. Fortunately, thanks to the semi-legendary status this one screening has given the film amongst a small group of people (many of whom presumably remain convinced they dreamed the whole thing), 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' found its way into my consciousness and I was suitably intrigued that I sought out a copy via a Czech website. I'm so very, very glad I made that effort.

The problem with synopsising 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' is that it is virtually impossible to encapsulate the film's unique atmosphere in words. Every review I've read (and, I imagine, the one I am in the process of writing) has made the film sound like a campy, ludicrous piece of throwaway fluff full of tacky, cut-and-paste sci-fi ideas and goose-stepping, Mel Brooks Nazis. But that is not the case at all. Bear that in mind while reading this plot outline: The Universum Company offers rich tourists the chance to travel through time in rockets to observe moments from the past. The tourists are sealed in the rockets so that they cannot interfere with the past and risk creating alternative futures. However, a group of elderly Nazis who have survived and stayed relatively youthful in appearance through the use of anti-aging pills, intend to abuse the technology to return to Germany in 1944 and offer a desperate Hitler the hydrogen bomb, thereby making him invicible and creating an alternate timeline in which the Nazis emerge victorious. The elderly Nazis bribe a pilot named Karel (Petr Kostka) to help with their scheme but on the morning of the intended voyage, Karel chokes to death on a bread roll. Witnessing this, Karel's usually strait-laced, identical twin brother Jan (Kostka again) seizes the opportunity to step into his brother's shoes and acquire the job he envies and the girlfriend he secretly desires. This impulsive decision has disasterous repercussions for all involved, ultimately forcing Jan to flit backwards and forwards through time in an attempt to sort out the mess he has caused. All this is without even mentioning the family of rooftop circus performers, the suitcase full of underwear, the futuristic bleach that destroys everything it touches and the paralysing pepper-spray that turns its victims green for a short period of time.

This synopsis surely sets up expectations of excessive wackiness and the wonderful opening credits, in which real footage of Hitler has been manipulated to give the impression that he is dancing to music, do little to dispel this. However, once 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' gets going it becomes clear that it is far more cleverly satirical and narratively impressive than its outlandish title implies. Crucially, the film never tips us the wink or draws conspicuous attention to itself. Polak is totally dedicated to telling his story and plays the whole thing straight, encouraging his game cast to do the same. The clearest reference points which possibly influenced the film are the original incarnation of 'Doctor Who' (1963-89) and Michael Crichton's 'Westworld' (1973) but 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' predates most screen examples of this time-travelling, history-changing plotline, such as 'Back to the Future Part II' (1989) or 'Primer' (2004). It's doubtful that 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' actually influenced these films but as an early example of this kind of visual narrative, it is undeniably a more important movie than its reputation suggests.

Time-travelling tales such as this have a (sometimes unwarranted) reputation for being overly complex but 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' is directed so expertly that only the most easily-distracted of viewers could lose the thread. Polak uses a series of visual and musical cues to make sure we always know where we are in the timeline. The titular tea-scalding and a dangerous flying knife are memorable bookmarks but best of all is Karel Svoboda's wonderful time-travelling theme, an infectiously upbeat synthesiser ditty which transcends its initial ridiculousness to become an uplifting, endlessly-amusing hook.

Petr Kostka is solid in the central dual role but standout performances come from Jiri Sovak as the head of the elderly Nazis and Frantisek Vicena as Adolf Hitler himself. Both shine in a supremely funny, extended comic setpiece in Hitler's bunker in which the seemingly foolproof plan comes unpicked little bit by little bit. Sovak does one of the best comedy reactions to escalating disaster I've ever seen here, exquisite in its understatement. It's perhaps the defining performance of the film, tackling the potentially zany chaos with measured dignity instead of wild mugging. Vicena, meanwhile, is one of the most effective screen Hitlers I've ever seen, certainly in a comedy film. The surprising twist here, especially after he was so roundly mocked in the opening credits, is that the Hitler role is almost entirely straight in both writing and performance. During the comedy moments, Hitler is merely the revered figure whose disapproving presence heightens the Nazis' humiliation. But it is in a deadly serious moment that Vicena truly shines, as Hitler views images of his imminent downfall via a futuristic projection device. The resultant disbelief, panic, denial and impotent anger Vicena displays is an incredibly powerful moment, especially in juxtaposition with the major comic stretch that proceeds it.

In the post-Hitler's-bunker scenes, 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' heads in another direction and the major reference point seems to switch from children's TV sci-fi shows to classic French farce, as Jan sets about putting right everything that has gone so badly wrong. Although there are one or two small plot holes (as there so often are in films of this kind), by now the viewer is so engaged by the film's own brand of logic that they pass without question and the neat resolution is satisfying and uplifting, in keeping with the tone of the film. Small ideas that seemed like throwaway gimmicks come back to feature in the plot and recast our opinion of earlier scenes as we begin to realise how tight this film is. It's a film of many diverse and interesting ideas but ultimately, nothing is there without a good reason.

I sat down to watch 'Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea' expecting an interesting curio and, as the hour and a half flew by, my heart swelled at the experience of discovering an overlooked classic. I was left with a real sense of privilege at being one of the few people to have seen this gem, as well as a headfull of names of people to whom I must show this fascinating, bizarre but instantly accessible and phenomenally enjoyable movie. I look forward to the endless joy that sharing this film with others will bring me. Perhaps someday the BBC will see the light and repeat it again but until that day I'll be thankful for those ten minutes I spent navigating that Czech website and consulting online currency converters!