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Lemonade Joe

Facets Video // Unrated // April 25, 2006
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted May 15, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Lemonade Joe (Limonadovy Joe aneb Konska opera, 1964), a Czech-made parody of Hollywood B-Westerns, is funny and, best of all, genuinely affectionate. This latter attribute especially, combined with the extremely stylized look of the film recalls the work of another Czech filmmaker, Karel Zeman, whose Jules Verne adaptations of the same period held the same fondness for the eccentricities of 19th century life.

Sadly, the great charm of Lemonade Joe is thwarted by Facets Video's ruinous DVD, an unmitigated disaster in every respect.

The movie follows classic B-Western conventions. In 1885, in Stetson City, temperance advocates Winifred (Olga Schoberova) and her father are given a hostile reception at the Trigger Whiskey Saloon where Doug Badman (Rudolf Deyl) rules the town with an iron fist, and where saloon singer Tornado Lou (Kveta Fialova) dreams of love. When the teetotalers are threatened by the saloon's unruly customers, Lemonade Joe (Karel Fiala) comes to the rescue. A teetotaler himself - just like Hopalong Cassidy, though Lemonade is dressed in white head-to-toe, the opposite of Hoppy's Man in Black - Joe favors Kolaloka Lemonade, which Winifred's father soon acquires for his own, rival saloon. With Badman's customers abandoning the Trigger Whiskey for Kolaloka, he calls upon evil brother Hogo Fogo (Milos Kopecky) to put a stop to this trio of do-gooders.

This is the kind of film that probably plays great in a crowded movie theater. The numerous songs, some in (barely recognizable) English, some in Czech*, are delightful, and overall the film succeeds because no matter how goofy it becomes, the self-contained world it creates believes in itself, operating under its own cockeyed laws. In other words, the film may be deliriously silly, but its characters play it straight. The film's soft-peddled satire of American capitalism is pointed and funny.

Director Oldrich Lipsky adopts a stark stylization that consists mainly of heavy tinting, mostly yellows, reds, and sepia, though there's other clever visual trickery throughout, some of it inspired by silent comedy and perhaps American one-reel cartoons, keeping the film visually interesting all the way to the end.

Video & Audio

The bare-bones menu screen - the only options are "Start Movie" and "Scene Selection," the latter listed on the box as a "Special Feature" - appropriately feature a close-up of a giant mouth, perhaps a disappointed consumer screaming in response to the abysmal quality of this DVD. An all-region DVD in PAL format was recently released by Filmexport Home Video. It looks phenomenal. It's 16:9 enhanced, offers both English subtitles and audio and, quite unlike the American edition, includes a feast of extra features. Most importantly though, it retains Lemonade Joe's original 'scope aspect ratio of about 2.35:1.

Facets' DVD, by contrast, is a non-enhanced transfer culled from a 35mm theatrical print, complete with splices, speckling, and reel change cues. It's panned-and-scanned, letterboxed to about 1.66:1. This awkward cropping, especially when compared with frame grabs of the Filmexport release, is disastrous. During gunfights, gunslingers disappear off opposite edges of the frame, and wonderful sight gags are thwarted by crappy Telecine work. (In one scene, for example, a Zeman-esque gag has the Trigger Whiskey's bartender fiddling with an old-fashioned, hand-cranked drink-mixer - possibly an invention of the filmmakers. As presented, half the machine is lost to all the cropping, and so is the joke.) The image is much softer than Filmexport's version; basically it looks like a 20-year-old transfer

The irremovable subtitles make matters worse. The font is ugly to the point of distraction, and so badly timed they always seem to appear several beats behind the dialogue. At times, we hear what sounds like important dialogue that goes unsubtitled, and the translations seem imprecise.

Bad positioning of the letterboxed image and accompanying subtitles spells more bad news for those with widescreen TVs: on most sets it's impossible to reformat the image to 1.77:1 and therefore must be viewed 4:3.

Extra Features

The only supplement, not counting those great Scene Selections, is a Collectible Booklet this reviewer didn't receive.

Parting Thoughts

Why Facets didn't simply ask for a clone of Filmexport's enhanced master is a mystery. Most studios will provide clones to licensees for a token fee, but even if they had asked for more money than Facets was willing to spend, it would have been preferable to shelve this title then unleash it in this sorry state. This is especially insulting given Facet's inexcusably high SRP ($29.95) when the enhanced PAL version, with all its extra features, actually costs considerably less, about $22.50. No doubt about this one: Skip It.

Note: Reader David Kapusta-Pofahl corrected my initially sloppy reference to "songs in Czechoslavkian," helpfully adding, "The language of the present-day Czech Republic is Czech, and the language of the Slovak Republic is Slovak. When Czechoslovakia did exist, you could use the adjective "Czechoslovak" to describe something, like, "Czechoslovak politics/art/cinema/etc"....It's strange that "Lemonade" is the translation. Limonada isn't lemonade, it's what we would call "soft drink", hence why Joe drinks "Kolalaka", the root of which is "kola."

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.

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