Vesyole Rebyata [Moscow Laughs] [Jolly Fellows]

(Soviet Union / Russia 1935)

It might seem strange to see a 1930s Soviet slapstick big band musical ostensibly made just for fun, but that’s what Grigoriy Aleksandrov’s Vesyole Rebyata [Весёлые ребята] [Moscow Laughs] [Jolly Fellows] is. Frankly, it is strange, or at least not anything I expected.

A sort of Depression Era communist Three’s Company, the humor here is crude: sex, mistaken identity, and class are the backbone of this comedy about a bizarre love triangle between a shepherd (Leonid Utyosov), a privileged diplomat’s daughter (Mariya Strelkova), and her housemaid (Lyubov Orlova).

Moscow Laughs is silly as hell, and it works on a certain level, to a certain point. The whole story — Lena (Strelkova), an opportunistic wannabe singer, woos Kostya (Utyosov), a shepherd whom she thinks is a famous Italian jazz conductor when she meets him on a beach — is funny at first. She invites him to her fancy hotel for dinner, calling him “maestro” and flattering him every way she can. Of course, he’s smitten.

Kostya shows up in a borrowed suit. Lena’s servant, Anyuta (Orlova), recognizes him because she’s admired him from afar for awhile — and she knows he’s not bourgeois. Kostya makes the boneheaded error of playing his pan pipe when asked to perform — the same pipe he plays to corral the animals under his charge. Hearing him play, the animals — pigs, sheep, goats, and cows — bust out of their kolkhoz and crash the party, literally. Hilarity ensues.

Unfortunately, Moscow Laughs loses steam once the setup is complete. The story rambles on through a few more episodes separated by cute animated shorts of the moon dancing and some time. Things get wacky. A bit too wacky for my taste.

Technically, Moscow Laughs reads as a transitional work; Aleksandrov clearly executes big ideas but maybe seems to operate from a mindset geared toward silent film. Stalin approved this film, and I can see why: the screenplay, written by Aleksandrov with Nikolay Erdman and Vladimir Mass, criticizes class and capitalism. The hammer and sickle prominently displayed above the stage removes any doubt that this is propaganda — it’s just social and not overtly political. It’s also very cheerful.

With Elena Tyapkina, Fyodor Kurikhin, Arnold, Robert Erdman, Marya Ivanovna, Emmanuil Geller

Production: Grading Dimension Pictures, Moskinokombinat

Distribution: Eduard Weil & Company (Austria), Amkino Corporation (USA), Facets Multimedia Distribution, Grading Dimension Pictures (International)

90 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) C+

Nitrate Picture Show

Loveless [Nelyubov]

(Russia 2017)

With his 2014 film Leviathan [Leviafan] [Левиафан] (https://moviebloke.com/2015/01/18/leviathan-leviafan/), director Andrey Zvyagintsev presented a glum picture of a city in decline. He continues on that trajectory with Loveless [Nelyubov] [Нелюбовь], a glum picture of a family falling apart.

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are in the midst of a nasty divorce. Still winding down their marriage, both have moved on: Zhenya spends nights with her boyfriend (Andris Keišs) and Boris is expecting a baby with his girlfriend (Marina Vasilyeva). The problem of their introverted and sad 12-year-old son, Alexey (Matvey Novikov), their only child, prevents them from turning the page. Neither wants custody, and they bicker over it. Constantly. He hears it all.

One morning when she gets home, Zhenya gets a call from Alexey’s teacher: he hasn’t been to school in two days. No one has seen him. He seems to have vanished. The police aren’t helpful, dismissing the matter as a case of a runaway who will be back in a few days. Frankly, Zhenya and Boris have been absobed by their own affairs and haven’t noticed Alexey much lately. They hire a group of volunteers to trace his steps and find him.

Loveless is an improvement over Leviathan, which was also a good film. Partnering again with Oleg Negin on the screenplay, the pace here is better and the story is a lot more engaging. No love is to be found here, and the adults are why. Shallow and selfish, they’re incapable or maybe just uninterested in seeing how their own toxicity adds to a bad situation. I have the impression that nothing changes at the end of the ordeal.

Spivak’s coldheartedness is chilling, and it’s hard to listen to her admit in one scene that having Alexey was a mistake and she should’ve had an abortion. Her mother (Natalya Potapova) — Alexey’s grandmother — is even worse. Novikov is another standout, bawling quietly behind a bathroom door or letting a tear stream down his cheek as he doesn’t eat his breakfast. Cinematograpger Mikhail Krichman, who gave Leviathan its crisp gloomy grey, does the same here, but somehow makes the whole thing look even bleaker.

With Aleksey Fateev, Sergey Dvoinikov, Artyom Zhigulin, Evgeniya Dmitrieva, Natalia Vinokurova, Djan Badmaev, Yanina Hope, Maksim Stoyanov, Denis Tkachev, Yuriy Mirontsev, Oleg Grisevich, Aleksandr Sergeev, Varvara Shmykova

Production: Non-Stop Productions, Why Not Productions, Fetisoff Illusion, Senator Film Produktion, Les Films du Fleuve, Arte France Cinéma, Eurimages, ARTE France, Canal+, Cine+, Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), Wild Bunch

Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics (USA), Altitude Film Entertainment (UK), Pyramide Distribution (France), Academy Two (Italy), Golem Distribución (Spain), Alpenrepublik Filmverleih (Germany), Wild Bunch (Germany), Cinemien (Netherlands), Seven Films (Greece), Against Gravity (Poland), Albatros Film (Japan), The Klockworx (Japan), Star Channel Movies (Japan)

127 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B

http://sonyclassics.com/loveless/

Alexander Nevsky [Aleksandr Nevskij]

(Soviet Union/Russia 1938)

Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitriy Vasilev’s Alexander Nevsky [Алекса́ндр Не́вский] is an oddball film. An historical drama with major propagandist and nationalistic overtones, it depicts Prince Alexander a.k.a. Nevsky (Nikolay Cherkasov) in his battle against the Teutonics as they try to invade the medieval city of Novgorod. Spoiler alert: Nevsky defeats them.

Alexander Nevsky tried my patience; of all the films at this year’s Nitrate Picture Show, it’s the only one I can say bored me. The plot is dull and the execution of the narrative is boring. The acting is stiff and the dialogue, even translated with subtitles, is…severe? I got through it without hating it thanks to a tiny amount of lightheartedness spinkled throughout that makes the whole thing bearable.

One subplot in particular kept me engaged and amused: it involves Vasili Buslai (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo Oleksich (Andrei Abrikosov), two warriors competing for the affection of the same woman, Olga Danilovna, a Maid of Novgorod (Valentina Ivashova, and that’s her character’s name). The two men relentlessly try to outdo each other in courage and skill on the battlefield, as she’s the big prize waiting for the winner. It doesn’t turn out how I expected.

That said, Alexander Nevsky is definitely a worthwhile experience for its visuals. It has a cool neoclassical atomic age sensibility, mixing elements of mythology with a kind of futuristic sci-fi minimalism. The battlefield scenes are beautifully shot, evoking a sense of vast otherworldly shock and awe. Eduard Tisse’s cinematography shimmers, and he contrasts light and dark really nicely here. The nitrate print we saw was sharp. I see why this was included in the festival:

Nevsky Cliff.jpg

Nevsky warriors.jpg

nevsky battlefield.jpg

With Dmitriy Orlov, Vasili Novikov, Nikolai Arsky, Varvara Massalitinova , Amelfa Timoferevna, Valentina Ivashova, Aleksandra Danilova, Vladimir Yershov, Sergei Blinnikov, Ivan Lagutin, Lev Fenin, Naum Rogozhin

Production: Mosfilm

Distribution: Artkino Pictures, Progressive Film Institute (UK), Amkino Corporation (USA), Panthéon Distribution (France)

108 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) D+

Nitrate Picture Show