Friday, March 30, 2012

Film Review: The Maiden Danced to Death

"The Maiden Danced to Death" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

The 15th annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago has come to an end. For the closing night I attended a screening for the Hungarian film, "The Maiden Danced to Death" (A Halalba Tancoltatott Leany 2012).

For all the years I have attended the EUFF and the larger Chicago International Film Festival, I always make it a point to see films from countries most American movie goers avoid. As a film lover I am curious to see what all countries are up to cinematically. But, I suppose because of my Eastern European heritage I also take a great interest in Eastern European cinema. I am always excited to see films from Bulgarian, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, Latvia and of course Hungary. Many people don't share my enthusiam. If they are going to watch a foreign language film, better to stick with French and Italian movies, two countries which Americans define as representing "Europe". But after watching a movie such as "The Maiden Danced to Death" it only re-enforces my feelings to seek out films from countries others don't pay attention to.

"The Maiden Danced to Death" is a very "Hungarian" film. You'll hear traditional Hungarian folk music, see traditional folk dancing and see characters wear traditional costumes. The film also features cinematography by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, who manages to bring the city of Budapest to life with his camera. I've never seen to city look so beautiful. It made me desperately want to go back. I remember walking on the streets of Budapest. It is for these reasons I recommend "The Maiden Danced to Death". But, clearly I am bias. How will non-Hungarian audiences react?

The film follows Istvan Udvaros (Endre Hules, who wrote and directed the film as well). He left Hungary during the communist era. By doing so he left his family behind also, which had to endure life under the harsh communist rule.

Istvan was a dancer, as is his brother, Gyula (Zsolt Laszlo). Istvan was a director of a dance company, but after not being able to re-enter the country, Gyula took over the company. Their father (Boris Cavazza) was a party member who lost his position within the party after Istvan left.

But that was all twenty years ago. Istvan has given up dancing and instead has become a promoter. He mostly deals with dance companies. Living in America Istvan has also decided to Americanize his name, now going by Steve Court. Steve has fallen on hard times. His wife has divorced him, he no longer sees his son, he lost control of his business and when he returns to Hungary, he finds out his brother married his old flame, Mari (Bea Melkvi). Not to mention his father has still not forgiven him for leaving his family behind.

In order to make things right Istvan decides to produce a show Gyula's dance company wants to put on. He arranges for a big European and American tour. Giving Gyula the chance he has always dreamed of. This also allows him to spend more time with Mari. But could Istvan have other motives?

Much of "The Maiden Danced to Death" resonated with him. I understand the pain of leaving one's country. And how difficult it is to leave family behind. I understand the harsh rule of communism. I was the first person to go back to Hungary in my family. None of them ever returned. It filled me with great pride to be able to do it. Hungary had changed from the days of my grandparents. I could relate to the arguments the characters engage in. One side feels Istvan abandoned them, while Istvan feels he had no choice but to leave. To seek a better life. Those moments hit home for me.

Other contemporary Hungarian films have dealt with this theme of returning home. Look at Karoly Makk's "A Long Weekend in Pest & Buda" (Egy Het Pesten es Budan, 2003) or Marta Meszaros' "The Last Report on Anna" (Utolso Jelentes Annarol, 2010. Which I have reviewed). This seems to be common for Hungarian films to examine this issues. Perhaps Hungarians are still trying to come up with stories which deal with their new freedom since the end of communism and the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Besides other Hungarian films however, "The Maiden Danced to Death" reminds me of the work of the great Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura, in particular his "Flamenco Trilogy"; "Blood Wedding" (1981), "Carmen" (1983) and "El Amor Brujo" (1986). In those movies Saura placed a heavy influence on dance. He incorporated traditional flamenco dancing into the stories. In "The Maiden Danced to Death" dancing is a major component of the film. The characters are rehearsing a traditional folk dance but it is countered by a modern interpretation of the story as the characters act out their own drama dealing with love, lust and revenge and honor.

There are flaws with this movie though. I wish Mr. Endre Hules would have given us more of a background story for his character. Perhaps show a flashback. Give us more hints into his motives. And truly build on the conflict between Istvan and Gyula and what both sides had to endure during that time. The father's perspective his brushed aside but it makes the stuff of great drama. A communist party member's son leaves the country, disgracing the father. There is great internal conflict there and it is given no screen time.

Still, "The Maiden Danced to Death" does make some gestures to explore the more serious themes it presents. And, as I have said, I loved hearing the music, seeing the dancing and the costumes and the impressive cinematography of Mr. Zsigmond.

The film is making its U.S. premiere at various film festivals, though, I doubt it will get picked up and be distributed in America. Americans simply have no interest in Hungarian cinema. Too bad. They are missing some truly wonderful films if they would only open their eyes to the world of cinema.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Film Review:

"" *** (out of ****)

Love and sex. It seems to be what everyone is looking for. Some are looking for both, others just for one or the other. This desire has found its way to the internet. Many people are familar with on-line dating. We have sites such as, e-harmony and others. It has become big business. Supposedly a quarter of relationships have started on-line. The Bulgarian film, "" (2012) lightly touches upon this new dating phenomenon.

I attending a screening for "" at the 15th annual European Union Film Festival where the movie is making its U.S. premier and its Chicago debut.

Walking into "" I was expecting a raunchy sex comedy. The movie has elements of that but it seems, sometimes, to want to go a little deeper into the dangers of on-line dating, but, I felt this were only lightly touched upon. And that ultimately is what hurts the movie.

"" is one of those ensemble pieces where we follow a group of people in their dating endeavors. First we have a reporter, Andrey Bogatev (Zahary Baharov) he has decided to do a story on internet dating in Bulgaria. According to him more than one million Bulgarians are on-line looking for dates. It would be a story which would have universal appeal. So Andrey joins a site, creates a profile, and searches around. He meets Niki (Dilyana Popova). She is a prostitute, who uses the site to find the most amount of lonely men.

Next we have Devora (Lora Cheshmedjieva) a young 14 year old girl who likes to take sexy, suggestive photos of herself and post them on a dating site. She has been talking to a man on-line who doesn't know how old she is but does want to meet her. What Devora doesn't know is that her mother, Emilia (Koyna Ruseva) is also on the site and uses it merely to meet men to have causal sex with.

We also meet John (John Lawton) an aging member for a former popular rock band in the 1970s who lives in England. He "meets" Joana (Diana Dobreva), who lives in Bulgaria. She makes a comment on a youtube video on John's video of his band and thus a friendship starts.

Finally we have Filip (Hristo Shopov), Andrey's brother. He is married to Mila (Lili Lazarova). They have a teenage son and now the couple seems stuck in a loveless marriage. They don't sleep together anymore and don't communicate. They feel like strangers in their own home.

Mila finds out that Filip is on a dating site. While at first very angry she then decides to join the site herself and starts to chat with Filip.

Of all the storylines in "" I find Filip and Mila's the most interesting. It reminds me of another Eastern European comedy, this one from Romania, called "Hello! How Are You? (Buna! Ce faci? 2011). That movie was about a married couple which also unknowingly begin to chat online. It would seem in Eastern Europe the internet is a new discovery. Of course, here in America, we have been dealing with it a little while longer. Remember "You've Got Mail" (1998)? We've already gone over the dangers of internet dating and how it has become a new source for meeting people.

While "" is in many ways a harmless comedy I was slightly disappointed. The movie isn't as funny as I was expecting and doesn't really make a strong social commentary on internet dating. I would have liked a movie which would have shown why people turn to the internet in the first place. Has the dating scene become so hopeless? Why aren't people connecting to one another on a face-to-face basis? I wish "" would have tried to examine these things under the surface while going for laughs. This, in my opinion, would have made "" a richer more emotional movie, trying to provide human insight. Instead I felt "" just glances over everything, not really taking a stand on one position or another. The movie has no voice. Nothing to say.

I could have forgiven all of this however if the movie was funny. There are some jokes in the movie and there's nudity, which perhaps provide a certain excitement, but I was expecting more laughs. Something along the lines of a sex comedy like "American Pie" (1999) or as outlandish as "There's Something About Mary" (1998). And it's not that I don't "get" Eastern European humor. I do. In fact I "get" it more than Western European humor. But "" wasn't as funny as I would have liked it. Look at the Hungarian comedy "Just Sex & Nothing Else" (2006, which I have reviewed) another very funny movie about dating.

The movie was directed by Ilian Djevelekov and seems to have been a hit in Bulgaria. It has been getting a major push to reach audiences in America and crowds are showing up. The movie had two screenings here in Chicago and both were sold out. Clearly this is a subject has people are interested in, though, it feels a little dated to me.

The movie is available on DVD in Bulgaria. I doubt it will find distribution in America, just because it is Bulgarian, and most American audiences have little interest in Eastern European cinema (Hungary included). But if you get a chance to see the movie, do so.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Film Review: On Again-Off Again

"On Again-Off Again" ** (out of ****)

The 1930s RKO comedy team Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey are not among my all-time favorite comedy teams. That honor goes to Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello. Still, readers know, I have a great affection for comedy. And I love watching movies by the teams and comedians time has forgotten; Olsen & Johnson, Harry Langdon, Joe E. Brown, the Ritz Brothers and the stars of "On Again-Off Again" (1937) Wheeler & Woolsey.

Wheeler & Woolsey worked at RKO and appearred in 21 feature films and one short two-reeler. They only made one film outside RKO, "So This Is Africa" (1933) which was released by Columbia Pictures.

Initially I had seen nearly every single one of their movies except "On Again-Off Again" and "So This Is Africa". So it was with great excitement when I ordered "On Again-Off Again" on DVD, thanks to Warner Brothers.

"On Again-Off Again" was the team's second to last movie. By this time in their partnership the quality of their films was starting to drop. Their work at this time includes "Silly Billies" (1936), "Mummy's Boys" (1936) and "High Flyers" (1937) their final film.

On paper "On Again-Off Again" sounds like a decent concept. Robert Woolsey plays Claude Horton and Bert Wheeler is William Hobbs. They have invented a pink coated pill, which I am not exactly sure what it is good for. They do nothing but argue. Their arguments reach such a high level that each speaks of dissolving the partnership and buying the other out.

The problem is the boys can't agree on who should buy who out. Each man feels they are responsible for the company's success. In a moment of utter frustration their attorney, George Dilwig (Russell Hicks) suggest they wrestle one another. The winner gets the company and the loser must become the winner's valet for a year.

By the time "On Again-Off Again" was made Robert Woolsey was in poor health. He was in constant pain during filming due to kidney problems. Woolsey was in such bad health he died in the same year.

I mention all of this for a reason. It shows on Woolsey's face he is in pain. Woolsey's health affects the team's chemistry. There doesn't seem to be any enjoyment in Wheeler or Woolsey's performance. There is no energy to what they are doing. Everything is slowed down. Pay attention to an early song and dance routine the boys do at the beginning of the picture. They engage in a dance duel with taps and smacks across the face. It is similar to a routine they do in "The Cuckoos" (1930). Compare both routines. Tell me that the routine doesn't work better in "The Cuckoos". In "The Cuckoos" they are in the moment. They are vibrant. In "On Again-Off Again" they seem weak and uninvolved.

And this is the biggest problem with the movie. Wheeler & Woolsey aren't "selling" it. The jokes fall flat. Woolsey has no zest for his lines. Someone could argue the comedy in a Wheeler & Woolsey movie is dated, and I won't disagree, but the boys "sold" it. They could find a way to make the material work. They had some pretty good moments of banter in their movies.

The script, written by Nat Perrin and Benny Rubin, from what I could tell, is decent. Perrin worked with Abbott & Costello and Olsen & Johnson, writing such movies as "Keep 'Em Flying" (1941), "Pardon My Sarong" (1942) and "Hellzapoppin' (1941, which I have reviewed). He also wrote a Red Skelton vehicle, "Whistling in Brooklyn" (1941) which is pretty good and co-wrote the Marx Brothers comedy "Duck Soup". Rubin on the other hand wrote "High Flyers" and a decent Joe E. Brown comedy "Bright Lights" (1935).

The script has a few holes. First of all the "wrestling" match happens too soon in the picture and they don't play it for all the laughs they could have by exaggerating upon the situation. In the movie the boys fight in their office dressed in their suits. Well, fight is the wrong word, they walk in circles. What they should have done was have it be an actual fight. Put them in a wrestling ring and wearing wrestling trunks.

When one of them becomes the valet there needed to be more scenes where ridiculous orders are placed upon the valet. I can imagine Abbott & Costello having fun with this set-up. They could engage in some word play with Bud Abbott confusing Lou with his words.

In a majority of Wheeler & Woolsey comedies Dorothy Lee would co-star with the team playing a love interest to Wheeler. They would even get an chance to sing and dance to a tune. Here the boys are paired with Majorie Lord, who would also appear with the team in "High Flyers". She really doesn't add anything to this picture. She has a few scenes with Wheeler, she doesn't sing, dance or even tells jokes. Dorothy Lee wasn't a great actress but she was as cute as a button. Her innocence was a perfect counter-balance to Wheeler & Woolsey's sexual innuendos. In "On Again-Off Again" Majorie Lord doesn't serve that purpose and Woolsey doesn't have any good sexual innuendos. That of course isn't Woolsey's fault, it is the fault of the writers.

The movie was directed by Edward F. Cline. He directed a few movies with the team; "Cracked Nuts" (1931, which I have reviewed), "Hook Line & Sinker" (1930, which I have reviewed) and "High Flyers". He also directed movies with Olsen & Johnson; "Ghost Catchers" (1944) and "See My Lawyer" (1945). Every film Cline directed with Wheeler & Woolsey was better than "On Again-Off Again".

My advice would be to skip this movie. If you are a true fan of this comedy team, naturally, you will want to see it. And now that is it available on DVD you will get your chance. I would seriously doubt though if fans would say this movie is funnier than "Diplomaniacs" (1933), my favorite of their comedies, "Hips, Hips, Hooray!" (1934) or "Peach-O-Reno" (1931, which I have reviewed). For those who have never seen a comedy by this team, start with one of the three movies I just mentioned. I don't like "On Again-Off Again" but I'm not sorry I saw this movie. I like to collect Wheeler & Woolsey comedies because at one time they were rare.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Film Review: The Chaser

"The Chaser" *** (out of ****)

With all the talk going on in the news lately by liberals, concerning a "war on women" being waged by conservatives, I thought it would be fun to discuss "The Chaser" (1928) a silent slapstick battle of the sexes comedy starring "the forgotten clown", Harry Langdon.

"The Chaser" was comedian Harry Langdon's second directorial film coming after the unsuccessful (though wrongly condemned in the my opinion) movie "Three's A Crowd" (1927, I've written a review for it).

"Three's A Crowd" was Langdon's attempt at a Charlie Chaplin picture. A movie which wanted to combine comedy and pathos. It had a pretty good set-up though it didn't quite hit the level of pathos found in Chaplin's "The Kid" (1921) for example. In "The Chaser" Langdon must have felt he learned his lesson and this time stuck to pure comedy.

Langdon stars as "the boy". He is married to "the girl" (Gladys McConnell, who also appeared in "Three's A Crowd). She complains Harry is spending too much time at his lodge club. For the past week he has been out as late as 8:30(!). She feels neglected and suspects Harry is fooling around with other women.

The first shot in "The Chaser" is of a close-up of the wife as she relentlessly gives Harry a verbal thrashing over the phone. Poor Harry sits quietly, defenselessly, listening to his wife complain about his behavior. Then Harry's mother-in-law (Helen Hayward) takes the phone and gives Harry her two cents.

Immediately stereotypes are put in place. Women, especially wives, are nothing more than nags, constantly complaining to their husbands. Meanwhile, husbands are defenseless creatures (this part is actually true) who put up with their wives temperament.

Since Harry is our hero, naturally our sympathy must be with him. In fact, Harry is not at a lodge meeting. He is out at a club and merely uses the lodge as an excuse to get out of the house. But, on this particular night "the girl" and her "mother" are not going to put up with Harry's behavior. First the mother tries to shoot Harry when he comes home. Then the girl files for divorce when the murder doesn't happen.

The judge decides divorce is pointless and doesn't grant it. He feels a man like Harry needs to learn responsibility. It is his decision that Harry and his wife switch roles. She will go out and earn a living while Harry must stay home and do the housework. Thus establishing another stereotype, though probably a reality of the times, that all women were housewives and had their place in the kitchen.

The humor of the film now stems from Harry trying to adjust to domestic life. Being able to cook and clean. If that isn't enough, Harry wears an apron in a gesture to completely take away all of his masculinity.

The movie also tries to establish, whoever sees Harry assumes he is a woman. This is despite the fact outside of the apron, nothing in Harry's appearance has changed. The milkman and all other visiting men make passes at Harry. Giving him a peck on the cheek. First of all, this is all extremely strange to watch. Why can't these men tell Harry isn't a woman? Secondly, is this a reflection of the times? Did housewives have to put up with advances being made by the milkman or the postman (is that why he always rings twice?)? Did men feel entitled to make advances at women?

Hitting the depths of despair Harry decides to kill himself. He simply cannot live his life as a housewife. Luckily his friend (Bud Jamison, who will be very well known to Three Stooges fans) sneaks Harry out of the house so they can go play a game of golf.

I suppose this was done so Harry could feel like a "man" again. Though today they would probably watch football or hockey and drink a beer.

At this point the film shifts its attention and abandons the battle of the sexes idea as we get a golf routine by Harry and Jamison. Harry Langdon comedies would usually do this. They would divert their attention from the original premise and side step it for a comedy routine which had nothing at all to do with the rest of the picture.

When I first saw "The Chaser" I didn't like it. I didn't like that Harry abandons his original premise for the golf scenes and I simply didn't find the second half as funny as the first half. But, after watching the film again recently I've changed my mind. Now I think of "The Chaser" as nothing more than a silly, irrelevant comedy which was nothing more than a showcase for Langdon. Plus, one has to remember Langdon was a bit of an odd-ball to begin with and "The Chaser" is a decent enough example of what Harry Langdon was up to.

As a director Langdon shoots this film in a much more conventional style than "Three's A Crowd". When I reviewed "Three's A Crowd" I mentioned how some of Langdon's camera angles made little sense to me. Over head shoots and long shoots didn't compliment jokes. Here Langdon doesn't get as fancy. Which is a good thing. But the movie has nothing visually impressive which might hurt it with some viewers.

I've written about Harry Langdon a few times on this site. I've reviewed "The Strong Man" (1926) directed by Frank Capra, "Long Pants" (1927), "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" (1927) and "Three's A Crowd". I like Harry Langdon. I feel he doesn't deserves the nickname "the forgotten clown". A majority of his silent film work is now on DVD. Kino and Facets have done a wonderful job restoring his films for all of us to see. Is Langdon as good as Chaplin, Lloyd or Keaton? I really can't say, but, he does belong in their league.

"The Chaser" has a story by Arthur Ripley, a long time collaborator of Langdon's. Ripley worked on some of Langdon's best known films and two-reelers including "Saturday Afternoon" (1926), cited by some of Langdon's best short and "His First Flame" (1927).

If you want to see the battle of the sexes played for melo-drama watch the Greta Garbo movie "The Single Standard" (1929) which I have also reviewed.