Netflix goes to film school this week, for between the usual bouts of grisly DTV horrors and recent indie/foreign hits we have visits to key moments in the history of cinema. The full evolution of editing from the physical task of shaping the film to the artistic endeavour of contributing to its aesthetic is the grand legacy of early Soviet cinema, whose theorists and proponents we pay tribute to in two new films this week. At the same time just down the road in Europe, the early incarnations of German Expressionism can be seen in Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, not presented below on account of the strange absence of the second half of the movie. Finally, a quick trip to Italy introduces us to a handful of the directors who shaped its cinematic revolution in the 1940s and ‘50s.
Bringing together four of the greatest directors of Italian neorealism, Boccaccio ’70 sees Mario Monicelli, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, and Vittorio De Sica unite to tell tales of the changing sexual attitudes of the 1960s. Loosely inspired by—though not adapted from—the work of the eponymous author, the segments offer variously comic and dramatic takes on a key period of change in post-war Italian society. Fellini’s is the finest, a daft romp of a story that offers clear inspiration for Woody Allen as a prudish man is tormented by a “pornographic” billboard erected outside his home. None of the four fails, a relative rarity for this anthology structure, and an absolute necessity here given the film’s overall length of three hours and twenty minutes. An enjoyably disparate collection of takes on an interesting historical moment, Boccaccio ’70 also works wonderfully as an introduction for the uninitiated viewer to the various styles of its great, important directors. RECOMMENDED.
Plodding from job to job in the wake of his failed efforts to make it in Hollywood, Campbell sees owning a vehicle as his ticket to a more fulfilled life, setting his sights on a van that—unbeknownst to him—finds primary usage as a mobile killing machine. A perfectly straightforward, knowingly silly exploitation setup finds early promise in director Scott W. McKinlay’s decadent display of gore, welcoming us to the show with a sequence of marvellously macabre murders executed with immensely impressive practical effects. Sadly it’s little more than the mayhem that McKinlay gets right, and his moments of success therewith are separated by what feels like hours of hammy acting and dialogue as stale as the plot it fills. As if the reprehensible crime of confining us to such boredom between bouts of gleeful slaughter weren’t enough, the film also makes the unforgiveable mistake of invoking Deep Purple without the necessary budget to play a song. That’s just wrong. AVOID IT.
Earth (Read our full review here)
The final chapter in Soviet filmmaker Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s retrospectively-titled “Ukraine trilogy”, Earth sees the director’s experimental style reach its zenith, his key placement among the montage proponents of the time here immortalised. Nominally an exploration of the daily lives of the collective farm workers, it’s an immensely strange, almost surreal propaganda piece that tends to veer off in imposingly dark directions at times, eerily obsessing over death and the more daunting things that come with the communist experience. Its muted reception at the time comes as little surprise, Dovzhenko’s pseudo-horror tone rendering even more inaccessible the progressive proclivities of his editorial style. Less often considered alongside the textbook films of the period than it should be, the intoxicating allure of Earth’s sheer oddity places it as both one of the most challenging examples of Soviet montage and one of the most continually engaging, its effect now as powerful as it was some 80 years ago. MUST SEE.
Safety not Guaranteed
Perhaps “low concept” is an appropriate term to describe films the like of Safety Not Guaranteed, those which take a familiar conceit of blockbuster filmmaking and turn it from the hinge upon which the entire narrative hangs to merely a backdrop against which characters and their relationships can be explored. Inspired by a real magazine advert requesting an assistant for experiments in time travel, debut director Colin Trevorrow construes a plot wherein a trio of reporters covertly explore the story for little more than laughs. Aubrey Plaza is magnificently sardonic as those of them selected to play the role of an interested party, working quiet wonder with an amusingly evasive Mark Duplass as the apparent loon who placed the ad. A comedy-cum-character piece, Safety Not Guaranteed boasts charm aplenty but loses much of its effect in the cloying quirkiness at the heart of its story and characters both, though not nearly so much as to overrule its underlying intrigue. WORTH WATCHING.
Adapting his 2007 short Dennis to ironically-titled feature length, Danish director Mads Matthiesen expands his exploration of that earlier film’s eponymous character with Teddy Bear. A gigantic body builder whose staggering physique belies a gentle soul within, we meet him in the midst of a painfully awkward date, his latest of many efforts to find female companionship outside the influence of his mother, with whom he still lives. Its light-hearted treatise on the meaning of masculinity renders the film almost a comic alternative to Bullhead, the pair both tackling the subject through these brutishly big protagonists, albeit with wildly differing tones. That’s not to misrepresent Teddy Bear’s dramatic sensibilities, however, its comparative comedy not precluding an overarching sense of sadness. Chiefly expressed in the reticent face of Kim Kold, lost amidst a mass of imposing muscle, it’s this idea of the herculean frame as nothing more than a costume hiding the lonely little boy inside. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
The End of St. Petersburg
Time has been kinder to Sergei Eisenstein than it has been his contemporary—and friendly rival—Vsevolod Pudovkin; the former’s popularisation of Soviet montage in Battleship Potemkin has seen him widely remembered as the definitive creative force behind that influential school of cinematic thought. In 1927, both were commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the October revolution in which Lenin’s regime rose to power: October was Eisenstein’s film; The End of St. Petersburg was Pudovkin’s. Perhaps it’s Eisenstein’s comparative radicalism which has seen his name better endure; Pudovkin’s style more closely conforms to the established tenets of film technique of the time, yet it’s precisely this that makes his the more inherently engaging work, its innovation employing and improving the Hollywood model rather than undermining it. As much as it is an artfully abrasive effort to further the language of film, The End of St. Petersburg is, at its heart, a stirring story of excitement and emotion. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Among the more well-known of the huge range of films dramatising the events of 9/11, Paul Greengrass’ United 93 follows in the footsteps of the director’s Bloody Sunday as it expounds in real time the fate of the eponymous flight, which crash-landed before reaching its assumed Washington target. Greengrass’ trademark handheld style brings a nail-biting intensity to the on-board struggle between passengers and terrorists, his final half hour an almost unbearably tense—and, more impressively, affectingly emotional—evocation of these events. The problem lies in the preceding hour, the requirements of meeting feature length seeing the first flights’ collisions dramatised through several intercut scenes in national and local control centres, standard sequences that—as evidenced by their eventual abandonment—have little more to offer the film than filler. Weighed down by the perfunctory nature of these additions, United 93 is merely a third of a great film, but my what a magnificent third it is. RECOMMENDED.