Ismail Merchant

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Howards End Review


Excellent
After 35 years of toiling and only one hit to their name (A Room with a View), the directing-producing team of Merchant-Ivory finally hit their stride with Howards End, a work that would become synonymous with their names and the template for their unmistakable style.

Slow, intricate, and deeply symbolic, Howards End ranks among the top films in their oeuvre. It's a history that, if you look at it closely, really amounts to three greats (End, Room, and The Remains of the Day) and a whole lot of nothing-much-else. But that's a subject for another day.

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Maurice Review


Very Good
The second of three adaptations of E.M. Forster novels by James Ivory and Ismael Merchant, Maurice is one of Merchant-Ivory's strongest showings.

A painstakingly produced period piece, this Edwardian drama centers around the title character Maurice (pronounced "Morris") Hall (James Wilby), an Edwardian-era fancy lad who finds himself smitten with a schoolmate during his days at college in Cambridge (though this is of course notoriously against the law in England at the time). At first, he's smitten with Clive (Hugh Grant in his first major film role) but after seeing what happens to a friend of theirs (Mark Tandy) when he's busted for homosexuality and sentenced to hard labor in prison, they both attempt to mend their ways. Clive gets married, Maurice attempts hypnosis. This seems to "cure" Clive -- well enough, anyway -- but Maurice still can't shake it. Eventually he winds up shacking up with the much lower-class gamekeeper at the country estate.

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The White Countess Review


Very Good
Audiences can expect one thing from the filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory: a Merchant Ivory film isn't meant to be watched, like other movies; it's meant to be visited, like a museum. While the results are sometimes dazzling and rich, and at others times stuffy and inert, the Merchant Ivory approach is nonetheless consistent. Each of their scripts lies somewhere between screenplay and novel. The attention they pay to period detail is lavish. And a Merchant Ivory cast typically reads like a roster of the world's leading thespians. Their most recent effort, The White Countess, is no different.

In it, all the Merchant Ivory hallmarks are present. The stalwart cast is led by Ralph Fiennes and a trio of Redgraves: Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, and Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave's daughter. The setting -- Shanghai in the period leading up to the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 -- is lush and meticulously rendered. And the script, loosely adapted from Junichiro Tanizaki's novel The Diary of a Mad Old Man, was penned by acclaimed writer Kazuo Ishiguro.

Continue reading: The White Countess Review

The White Countess Review


Very Good
Audiences can expect one thing from the filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory: a Merchant Ivory film isn't meant to be watched, like other movies; it's meant to be visited, like a museum. While the results are sometimes dazzling and rich, and at others times stuffy and inert, the Merchant Ivory approach is nonetheless consistent. Each of their scripts lies somewhere between screenplay and novel. The attention they pay to period detail is lavish. And a Merchant Ivory cast typically reads like a roster of the world's leading thespians. Their most recent effort, The White Countess, is no different.

In it, all the Merchant Ivory hallmarks are present. The stalwart cast is led by Ralph Fiennes and a trio of Redgraves: Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, and Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave's daughter. The setting -- Shanghai in the period leading up to the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 -- is lush and meticulously rendered. And the script, loosely adapted from Junichiro Tanizaki's novel The Diary of a Mad Old Man, was penned by acclaimed writer Kazuo Ishiguro.

Continue reading: The White Countess Review

The Golden Bowl Review


OK
James Ivory and Ismail Merchant had one hell of a mess on their hands in getting The Golden Bowl to theaters. In the end, they ended up buying back the rights from the studio, which wanted additional edits. Those edits might not have been such a bad idea, as the film, based on a Henry James novel, is considerably dull, despite its brisk pace and cast of dozens, all parlor-room types (and Merchant-Ivory alumni like James Fox and Nick Nolte) who speak in a hifalutin meter when they aren't busy boinking one another in a series of adulteries. And yet it's still boring. The Golden Bowl has some inviting characters (much like the similarly droll House of Mirth, but at least it had Gillian Anderson), but this story is just too slow, too predictable (oh, he married a girl for money but is in love with her friend... what a surprise), and too long to be of much interest to anyone but the costume-drama obsessed.

Heights Review


Weak
Since the modern cinema could easily be said to have a chronic Glenn Close deficiency, it seemed just peachy when the 24-hours-in-some-New-Yorkers'-lives flick Heights opened with a good dose of the lady herself, only to see watch the film spend far too much of the rest of it dealing with other, lesser characters. Close plays Diana Lee, a famous actress moonlighting as an acting teacher who, in that opening scene, tears apart two of her students in front of the whole class, castigating them for their rote recitations of Macbeth. She declaims the modern age's loss of grand emotions and the substitution of meekness, fairly screaming at her worshipful wannabes, "Passion!" If only the movie that proceeded from that point had followed her advice.

As possibly the last film to come out from Merchant Ivory Productions before the May 2005 passing away of Ismail Merchant, Heights is a good deal more lively than the stiff-necked product the duo became known for, but still suffers from a certain bloodlessness. Based on a one-act play and stretched to its limit, the film follows a few New Yorkers through their day as they run about Chelsea and downtown, leading artistic lives and holding some very obvious secrets. Somewhere along the way the viewer is supposed to go "ah!" as the disparate elements come clicking together, but they're more likely to have lost interest at that point, as the light comedy is continually interspersed with a leavening of twentysomething lassitude.

Continue reading: Heights Review

A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries Review


OK
...unless she's stuck in this bizarre girlie-coming-of-age in the sex-happy 1960s. Based on the life of writer James Jones and his daughter -- neither of whom I've ever heard of before or since this film.

Le Divorce Review


Good
Two American blondes discover the joys of Paris - love, heartache, and wearing scarves in a multitude of ways. The blondes are the Walker sisters of California, Roxy (Naomi Watts) and Isabel (Kate Hudson). As Le Divorce opens, Isabel has just arrived in Paris to stay with Roxy and help her out in the late stages of her pregnancy. As luck would have it, Isabel shows up just as Roxy's husband, Charles-Henri (Melvil Poupaud) is walking out on her and their young daughter. The highly moralistic Roxy refuses to give Charles-Henri a divorce, instigating a battle with his extensive, wealthy family, which is lorded over with queenly arrogance by his mother, Suzanne de Persand (Leslie Caron).

The conflict between the Walker and de Persand clans is meant to be only the backdrop for the film's marquee star, Kate Hudson, to strut her naïve self around Paris and fall in lust with Charles-Henri's uncle, the much-older Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte), a suave TV commentator. But it is this familial battleground that quickly becomes the more engaging storyline, especially after Roxy and Isabel's parents (Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing) fly in from California to help out in the negotiations. Waterston and Channing play their roles with effortless grace, establishing that they've been comfortably married for years by using only the slightest of gestures.

Continue reading: Le Divorce Review

Roseland Review


Good
Christopher Walken's appearance here -- in a very early role, a year before his breakout in The Deer Hunter -- is the primary (if not the only) reason to check out Roseland, which also happens to be an early Merchant-Ivory collaboration, too. Roseland is a movie about the eponymous New York dance hall, set in the 1970s (I'm estimating), and comprising three stories set in its cavernous environs.

Barely connected, the middle segment is Walken's -- cleverly titled "The Hustle" -- as he plays a gigolo working three different women, each with different needs and different issues. Walken hadn't created his signature speaking cadence yet, and it's shocking not only to hear him deliver lines in a relatively normal voice, but also with such a large pompadour. This is also Walken's first film where his masterful dancing is on display (see also 1981's Pennies from Heaven) -- and fans of "Weapon of Choice" will definitely want to check out a little vintage Walken high step here.

Continue reading: Roseland Review

Shakespeare Wallah Review


Good
The first sequence of Shakespeare Wallah shows British actors clowning around like idiots while knowing Indian servants wince, and it looks like the film will be a typically simple-minded parody of British "imperialism." This early Merchant-Ivory collaboration shares the same subject matter -- the end of the British Empire -- as many of their later films, but it develops into a more intimate and nuanced work than the team's subsequent high-profile period films, like The Remains of the Day.

Probably this is because the story, which concerns an unsuccessful troupe of English Shakespearean actors in post-colonial India, is semi-autobiographical. Several of the actors, most of whom are somehow related (Felicity Kendal is the daughter of Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Liddell in life as well as on screen), were actually members of an English-Indian theatrical troupe who toured India in the 1960s. The film is most interesting as a tour of India when it was still in some ways a British country.

Continue reading: Shakespeare Wallah Review

Ismail Merchant

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Ismail Merchant Movies

Heights Movie Review

Heights Movie Review

Since the modern cinema could easily be said to have a chronic Glenn Close deficiency,...

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Le Divorce Movie Review

Le Divorce Movie Review

Two American blondes discover the joys of Paris - love, heartache, and wearing scarves in...

Surviving Picasso Movie Review

Surviving Picasso Movie Review

If you learn only one thing while watching Surviving Picasso, it will probably be this:...

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