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Syndication (and Father Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac) [18 Feb 2011|05:52pm]
This is probably the last update on this blog, giving a heads up about two things:

First, a writeup for Father Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac is up, over on Wordpress blog.

Second, all future updates will be on bishopsreviewwp (syndication feed provided courtesy of rax, who is awesome).
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Update: Now syndicated! [17 Feb 2011|10:10pm]
We're now syndicated on bishopsreviewwp. Many thanks to rax for setting it up!
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Migration [01 Feb 2011|11:12pm]
I'm working on migrating this blog over to Wordpress due to sundry ways in which LiveJournal is starting to annoy me. The new home for updates is bishopsreviews.wordpress.com.

Sorry for the inconvenience. I might open up a syndication feed for anyone who still prefers to get their reviews via LJ (there are still people who read this, yes?).
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Ondine [31 Jan 2011|11:51pm]
[Screenshot]Ondine is, I fear, less than the sum of its parts. There's a lot here that could or should be good, thematically, since we've got a dying girl and a redeemed alcoholic and a possible mythological figure bouncing off of each other and it seems like a storyline that should go to excellent places. But there are two problems, one of which might be me. The part that might be me is enunciation. Everyone (but especially Colin Farrell) affects a thick Irish accent and mumbles, with the result that almost all the dialogue was completely unintelligible. If I spoke Spanish I might have been able to work with this, since for some incomprehensible reason the DVD only had Spanish subtities (I thought English subtitles or captions were a pretty standard feature on any work with a half-decent budget), but as things stood I actually missed most of the dialogue and ended up kludging the plot together from events. The other problem is that none of these plot elements actually receives any sort of dramatic fulfillment. Syracuse isn't tempted to return to his boozing ways, and Annie doesn't appear to be even inconvenienced by her illness, much less dying of it. And the mysterious woman from the sea, while eventually driving the plot forwards, seems to be steadily driving in into less interesting places than where it started until all the magic is drained out of the film's mood. Maybe those elements work better with the dialogue's assistance, but as it actually transpired on my viewing, it was more than a little disappointing.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.
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Hyènes [31 Jan 2011|11:02pm]
[Screenshot]I, like a lot of college students of German, read Dürrenmatt's Der Besuch der Alten Dame, and found it reasonably interesting. There are surprisingly few films based on this work, and Hyènes is both the highest-profile and in many ways the most intriguing. It actually hews quite close to the source material but manages to take on new themes: A little Senegalese desert village is a different matter, both culturally and economically, from even the most decrepit Swiss town, and the prospect of even comparatively modest wealth having as profound an effect as Ramatou's does is somewhat more believeable in this context. This adaptation also drops some of the more overtly farcical aspects of the Dürrenmatt work, such as Clare's ludicrously large and purely comic entourage. The resulting work is more grounded in reality and more chilling. It's still shot through with dark comedy, because the story fundamentally has an element of the absurd, but it feels a lot meatier and sharper in this less fantastic setting.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.
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The Princess and the Frog [31 Jan 2011|09:50pm]
[Screenshot]I haven't actually taken in a Disney original feature animated film in a while, and got the impression I wasn't missing much, with increasing tokenization and worsening art and being pitched at Kids Today, from whom I am increasingly remote. But I got the impression this one was actually pretty good, so I decided to give it a go. I wasn't disappointed! There's actually some refreshing willingness to step outside of a lot of the boundaries which have bound Disney of late. It doesn't have that trying-too-hard-to-be-hip vibe that characterizes far too much children's entertainment today, and the animation is reminiscent of a less-stylized naturalistic design from Disney's glory days. But it still seems to have basically modern sensibilities, and encompasses a number of good progressive ideals (strong women and large minority roles) without becoming oppressively tokenistic. The art is organic, the characters and voice-acting appealing, and the music pleasantly appropriate. It works quite well. I wasn't blown away, but I was satisfied and entertained.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.
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Cyrano de Bergerac [31 Jan 2011|09:37pm]
[Screenshot]I rather like the text of Cyrano de Bergerac, although I've never seen a stage performance of it, so this will have to do. It even uses the same translation I read (Brian Hooker's). There are bits, particularly wordplay-intensive bits, whose omission I missed, but that's ever the curse of an adaptation. Mostly this worked; there's significant hamminess in a lot of the scenes, but, hey, it's a hammy play, and Jose Ferrer is particularly well-placed, full of swagger and bravado and just the right amount of tragedy. Mala Powers's Roxanne is a bit indifferent and unconvincing, but they can't all be winners.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Internet Archive (free download).
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Alice in Wonderland [23 Jan 2011|02:17pm]
[Screenshot]I am starting to think the temptation to do horrible things to the source material is such that pretty much nobody can do a good Alice in Wonderland film. The only ones I'll give the time of day to any more are the faithful Richard Burton 1983 adaptation and Švankmajer's completely insane but artistically fascinating Něco z Alenky. Suffice to say, Tim Burton is not really impressing me here. I already felt like we were treading some awfully well-turned-over ground when we were introduced to our proto-feminist in Victorian society, an overdone premise which seems to have the dual purpose of making the protagonist simultaneously sympathetic and wholly unrealistic. Pretty much everybody in the frame story is an absurd Victorian stereotype or deconstruction thereof, so it's a relief to escape from caricature-world into the comparatively realistic structure of Wonderland.

Then again, maybe not. Like the Sci-Fi channel's Alice, this film labors under the delusion that the surreal satirical fantasy world of Wonderland is a good setting for a high-fantasy epic, so everyone goes on about prophecies and swords and missions and rules, all of which is rather severely undercut that the Big Epic Battle is apparently between a bobblehead and Galadriel in black lipstick.

There are all sorts of weird mechanical mistakes I could take exception to, some of which are depressingly common in free adaptations: the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts are hopelessly muddled (the pastiche of the two different books is fine, but these are actually fairly distinct characters), and the "Jabberwocky" is actually a poem about a creature called a "Jabberwock", but in the end my biggest problem is one of tone. Alice in Wonderland is a fundamentally whimsical work, and these high-fantasy trappings are very hard to take seriously.

On cinematic and computer technology it's pretty solid, but these days nobody expects otherwise from Tim Burton. He's working with several from his usual stable of actors, and they're delivering mostly the kind of performances they usually do: in my estimation, Helena Bonham Carter's usual actually works pretty well as the Red Queen, but somehow Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter doesn't quite work, because he can't seem to decide whether to be the antagonistic and sneering Hatter of the original work, or the Captain Exposition which this reworking demands.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.
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Memed my Hawk [23 Jan 2011|01:34pm]
[Screenshot]Seduced by the lead role of Peter Ustinov, I decided to take a look at this late-career work of his. I'm afraid it is not one of his strongest films. In fairness, he puts on a good show, playing his role with an expansive wit, but every moment he's not on the screen drags painfully. It doesn't help, mind, that there are no actual Turks in the production, and it's seriously undermined by technical issues, as the DVD transfer is fairly low-quality. But mostly, it fails to really appeal thanks to long scenes of fairly static plot, where the rebels or the authorities exposit at length but not very interestingly. In the end, it didn't leave much of an impression, although Ustinov deserves credit for his delightful (and more than a little hammy) tyranny.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.
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California Dreamin' (Nesfârșit) [23 Jan 2011|01:21pm]
[Screenshot]I kind of expected this Romanian film to be a black comedy about Kosovo, based on the summary descriptions I read; but it's actually a story during but incidental to the Kosovo crisis. It's also based on a true story, but very loosely: the actual event inspiring this film was undramatic, so the causes of and the local reaction to the stranding of the unit had to be tweaked considrably.

It's a cute slice-of-life story, which doesn't seem to be particularly in pursuit of a particular theme, and falling into the fairly standard plot of a technoglogically and economically superior force descending upon a quiet little town and sending it into an uproar. It's a competent play on that particular plot construction, and pleasingly non-idealistic. There are lots and lots of characters and most of them are well-enoguh characterized to feel like Real People. The acting and technical aspects are no great shakes, but they're working with a firm story-structure foundation.

However, ultimately, slice-of-life is a bit colorless no matter how interesting the events are, which combines dangerously with the film's ridiculous 2.5-hour length: after a while, it gets badly bogged down and it feels like too much movie for its actual plot. There is much that is good and enjoyable in this work, but I think it would actually be more enjoyable if there were considerably less of it.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.
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Cú và chim se sẻ [22 Jan 2011|10:21am]
[Screenshot]This was a first for me: I found a technical decision in a film to be irksome enough to drag me out of my usual tepid indifference to technical matters. It's an issue a lot of indie and quasi-indie stuff has these days, but it really only became intolerably distracting in this one. I refer to the modern "shaky-cam", not in the action-movie Michael-Bay/Star-Trek sense, but the bobs and weaves of a handheld camera, as if the action is being recorded by an invisible videographer. I don't want to imagine my Saigon residents being followed by a documentary crew; I want to see their story delivered with competence, which is usually best served by a steady camera. I'm sure there's some dodgy verisimillitude-related justification for this poor (and not unique) decision, but I call bullshit.

Maybe one of the reasons I felt the technical aspects so keenly was the thinness of the story. The basic plot is of a plucky little girl's machinations to get a man and a woman she likes together. It's a sweet little romance but rather cliched. The only places where I felt much at all was when Hai was philosophizing (he had good lines and good delivery), or when we were seeing life among the flower-selling girls and noodle-selling boys, which was presented convincingly and with a realistic restraint of tone (cold insecurity, but not, say, Dickensanian nightmare)

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.
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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus [22 Jan 2011|10:03am]
[Screenshot]I'm afriad Terry Gilliam's latest works have not done as much for me as his classics. Part of it is that he now feels a need to explain: films like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King and Brazil just sent the viewer pell-mell through lunacy and dared them to keep up; even 12 Monkeys, which was much more explicable, did so in a way which kept the story flowing. Parnassus, on the other hand, has kind of gotten bogged down in its own story, taking a lot of time on backstories, sidestories, and painfully integarting the sidestories into the backstory.

Despite the frequent bogginess, I enjoyed watching it, because Gilliam maintains a strong sense of visual spectacle, and even his real-world segments are shot through with a sense of the unreal and the supernatural. The interior of the Imaginarium itself occasionally strays vaguely into the Burtonesque, but mostly stays reminiscent of Gilliam at his most fantastic. Apropos of the interior of the Imaginarium, of course the most well-known aspect of the film is its peculiar kludge to deal with the inconvenient death of its star, by replacing him with other actors in the Imaginarium. It actually mostly worked for me: the phantasmagorical setting grants a lot of latitude for suspension of disbelief, and Depp, Farrell, and Law resemble Ledger enough in mannerisms, voice, and features to not be jarring in the transition.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.
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Fire [22 Jan 2011|09:19am]
[Screenshot]Again I return to the Indian drama, since it's a lot more digestible to my sensibilities than the musicals are. This is not exactly Chandni Bar; it's a lot less cautious with its characterization. and its themes, and sets up straw men to be knocked down by a rather unsubtle lesbianism-saves-the-day element.

I don't have a problem with gay themes, and I've historically found a lot of films that took them interesting places, but there are serious problems in the construction of Fire, that every single male character in the film is a bad person, ranging from Ashok at the best (whose celibacy is not a problem, but his objectification of Radha is), to Jatin (whose adultery is at least convincingly portrayed) to Mundu (who's simply cartoonishly evil). This may be demonstrative of a certain kind of family life, and it provides a useful social context in which Radha and Sita's relationship faces emphatic hostility, but as a backdrop for gay self-discovery, it's actively harmful, since it makes Radhu and Sita's relationship less "discovering where their true attractions lie" and more "pursuing romantic involvement with the only person in each of their lives who is not obviously horrible". In spite of all that, there's some good chemistry, and when it's just the two of them on the screen, one can believe that they actually fell in love with each other rather than settling for each other. But all in all, despite the good chemistry between the leads and the tension between their love and their societal role, I have real problems recommending this one.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.
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אושפיזין/Ushpizin [21 Jan 2011|01:02am]
[Screenshot]I'm a cultural Jew, but not a religious one; I enjoy exploration of the cultural traditions of my people, so it goes without saying that I was predisposed to like this film. Particularly since it highlights one of the more ethical aspects of Jewish tradition: that the holidays are a time first and foremost for hospitality (both Sukkot and Pesach figure in a great deal of folklore about the blessings attendant on those who welcome strangers into their midst). So there are a lot of nifty mythic resonances being set up by this story, which slots them nicely into the mold of a fable without being over-didactic. There's a lot to like here and I'm loathe to spoil it, but it keeps moving and spins out its characters in a believable and largely sympathetic way; even the titular guests are likeable in their rough way. On technical aspects the film is mostly servicable (albeit with a somewhat intrusive dependence rather unimaginative pop music at a few crucial places), but it's really the acting that keeps this one rolling, particularly by Shuli Rand.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.
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Fantastic Mr. Fox [16 Jan 2011|03:40pm]
[Screenshot]Man, the studios must be scraping the bottom of the Dahl barrel. All of his cleverly subversive works got made into movies already, so we find ourselves left with less-notable work like Fantastic Mr Fox, which, to be honest, doesn't have much to recommend it. The filmmakers seem to have recognized this, since they loaded the story down with padding material, most notably the addition of teenage rivalry-and-coming-of-age aspects. The resulting work is one which is technically quite competent (the fur is really quite well animated) but with little to make it stand out in terms of overall construction from other films with the same themes. I'll admit none of those other films had vulpine protagonists.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.
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The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto [04 Jan 2011|12:52am]
[Screenshot]Experimental animation is kind of hit-or-miss for me. I've figured out that I like Švankmajer more than Brothers Quay, and that surreal cel or computer animation doesn't work for me. Kawamoto's work somewhat falls into the second category, I'm afraid: it's stop-motion, but largely with flat cutouts, and I found his particular brand of surreal often impenetrable. The first film in this collection, "Breaking of Branches is Forbidden" went on way too long for a story with no sound: there was a narrative, but it was ultimately flat and had trouble carrying the story purely with largely unexpressive puppets. The next several were more successful, in no small part because they were shorter. Both "Anthropocynical Farce" and "The Trip" were rather static in their cinematic composition, but interestingly enough designed to hold my attention. "A Poet's Life" was an unqualified success, compositionally and plotwise, and "House of Flame" and "Dojiji Temple" were both authentically skillful and intriguingly transcended the limitations of stop-motion.

This is a mixed bag, like any collection of disparite works. I'm afraid I soured on the whole thing to a certain extent because the weakest material was first. That's surely a function of its chronological ordering. I'd probably give "Breaking of Branches" a miss but the rest are worth the time spent on them.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.
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Édes Anna [01 Jan 2011|10:13pm]
[Screenshot]There are a fair number of Hungarian films on my pull list that I haven't been able to track down: if anyone knows a stateside source for a properly subtitled version of Szegénylegények or the 1969 version of A Pál utcai fiúk I'd appreciate the info. But I finally managed to track down a subtitled version of Édes Anna, a film from 1958 based on Kosztolányi's classic drama of class warfare on the individual level.

It manages to accurately portray most of the events of the book while skirting around the social context, which somewhat seems to miss the point. I imagine any sort of political themes were a bit toxic in the late 50s, for fear of either resisting or seeming too cozy with the regime, but it very much takes the purpose out of the story. The household dynamic is well-prtrayed though: Mrs. Vizy is just unpleasant enough without being obviously nasty, while Kornél takes an appropriately embarassed tack to her mania. Jancsi is a difficult character to portray well: in the novel he came across as conflicted, awkward, and troubled, but on the screen his inner turmoil can't be easily portrayed and he comes off as even more of a cad than he did in the original work.

This work mostly succeeds because Mezel and Töröcsik, in their roles as Mrs. Vizy and Anna, have a believably fractious dynamic. Among other things, this movie served to kickstart the career of the talented and aformenetioned Mari Töröcsik, who would then appear in pretty much every significant Hungarian film of the next 4 decades.

The book is better, I'd venture, and certainly a lot easier to find in the US.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.
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Her Very Special Robot, by Ann Jacobs [01 Jan 2011|09:40pm]
I occasionally take a look at the free modern content in the Kindle store. My reading this particular work came about from my first foray into this content, which was aptly summarized by this observation of mine. Really, with a title like that, how could I pass it up? I figured I'd regret not reading it more than I'd regret reading it. I mean, I read Her Torrid Temporary Marriage purely on the basis of its ridiculous title, so how much worse could this be?

Alas, it's much worse. It doesn't actually pretend to have a plot or characters. It is undisguised and not actually well-written pornography, and to add insult to injury it doesn't have an authentic robot in it (I was kind of expecting a sex-with-robots farce, and I could've handled porn if that had been its conceit, but it actually has this kind of ugly recent-widow-seducing plot, above and beyond the usual ugly characterizations of porn).

The one saving grace: it is very short.
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Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar [01 Jan 2011|09:23pm]
[Screenshot]I read that there was a Bollywood remake of Breaking Away, and figured I had to see this singular oddity. I'll admit I don't necessarily understand the whole Indian-musical thing, despite occasionally watching them, and my ability to figure out the musical bits was not helped in this case by the unfortunate decision not to subtitle the songs.

It recognizably contains significant elements of Breaking Away, but makes some interesting changes to the dynamics around the lead character. First of all, he's basically split in two, and the talented cyclist is his "good brother" Ratan: the one his father likes, who doesn't get into trouble, and who eventually has to step aside for the real protagonist, his troublemaker brother Sanjay; Sanjay doesn't much resemble Breaking Away's Dave either, and is distinctly lacking in admirable characteristics. Granted, that makes his eventual redemption that much more satisfying, but he isn't even likeable for much of the film. Part of what makes him unlikeable is the resctructuring of the family dynamic: while the father in Breaking Away was a rather clownish caricature played largely for laughs, Sanjay's father is presented as a responsible businessman and father who is materially hurt by Sanjay's selfishness.

The cinematography is pretty satisfactory although the colors always seem a bit washed-out, which is probably a technical or budget issue. The music is pretty standard Indian musical fare, which I don't differentiate well. The subtitles were competent, as far as I can tell.

I'm not sure if this movie is particularly worth seeing on its own merits, but it's definitely a distinct take on the basic plot of Breaking Away, which is certainly well wrthwhile if you either liked Breaking Away or like Bollywood musicals (or both!). It runs a bit long, though.

Incidentally, even though most of the film is in Hindi, people (mostly the prep-school girls) say "OhmyGod!" in English an awful lot.

See also: IMDB, .
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Le roman de Renart [01 Jan 2011|09:02pm]
[Screenshot]I like what I know of the Renart (or Renard, or Reynard) mythos: they're basically early trickster stories. I also like animation, so I was kind of psyched for an animated take on the mythos. The age-range material-limitation coming from an animated tale I reasonably expected, but I can't really wrap my head around post-mdern-Disney post-Shrek children's animation, which often seems to be trying too hard, packing it in painfully tight with lame jokes and mangling the original material beyond recognition. Next time I want an animated vulpine trickster, I think I'll maybe go with Robin Hood (which also mangles the source material, but is actually fun).

See also: IMDB.
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