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Aspiring polymath since 1982

The Merchant-Ivory Reviews

I had written in a previous post about joining a new DVD subscription service started by the Reliance conglomerate called Bigflix. One of the main attractions for me was that there collection seems to have a good smattering of what is called “world cinema”. Though euro-centric, it’s great to be able to watch the complete Merchant-Ivory oeuvre or that of Ingmar Bergman without having to wait for an annual film festival or trying to score copies from friends and family or the friendly neighborhood bootlegger. After watching my first Merchant-Ivory film “The Perfect Murder”, it struck me that what better way to sum up the experience then watching all of the Merchant-Ivory films available at Bigflix and reviewing the movies as well as my reactions to them.

I will be updating this post with the movies as and when I have finished watching them, so I guess this post will keep getting bigger (after all, there are 30-odd movies under the Merchant-Ivory banner). So here goes.

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The Perfect Murder

The DVD blurb calls it a crime caper set in Mumbai based on the award-winning novel by H.R.F Keating. Inspector Ghote, the main character in the movie is an earnest yet ineffectual Mumbai cop, deferential to seniors and people in power such as politicians and big businessmen just like others of his ilk. The film starts off by following Inspector Ghote at his botched attempt to catch a member of a prominent diamond smuggling ring. From the get-go it becomes obvious that Inspector Ghote, the movie as well as the characters are just Indianized versions of the Pink Panther series. Inspector Ghote as the Indian Inspector Closeau.

This would be all fine and well if the capers were up to the same level of those in the Pink Panther but sadly, its far from it. Though the film does have some light moments, I do not think there is any certifiably “laugh-out-loud” moment in the movie. Maybe its because all the characters except for the Swedish Inspector Alex Svensson are Indian, and their reactions and dialogues can be surmised at, being an Indian myself. Secondly, I have not read the original book so I cannot comment on the screen adaptation of the story but is there a story? If there is one, i think its less than a few sentences in length based on what I have seen. This really brings down the movie as there is not much in terms of a plot at all.

There are some really good actors here but most of them are wasted because their characters are too cliched to be taken any seriously and most of them are given too little screen time to flesh out their characters in any way. The only exceptions to this are Naseeruddin Shah, Stellan Skarsgård and Amjad Khan who do get the required screen time. Naseeruddin Shah shines in this movie as Inspector Ghote but what were the other two thinking? Stellan Skarsgård spends most of the time in the movie behaving little more than a star-struck tourist and little as the Swedish criminologist he is supposed to be. Amjad Khan is wasted spouting inane dialogues such as “hubble-bubble” or “double-trouble” and Madhur Jaffrey? This film should have been called “Where in the world is Madhur Jaffrey”.

My last criticism about the movie is that it focuses too much on the Indian-ness of the characters and not at all on the plot. True, this is a caper based in India and therefore the characters have too reflect the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Indians and the country, but by focusing on it too much, the movie becomes more like a sociological documentary than a crime caper. Similarly, by focusing too much on the Indian setting (the proverbial Indian cow makes an important appearance) as a part of the plot, it reduces the whole film to a sly product placement move by the Indian Tourism Ministry.

The only enjoyable thing about the movie is the cinematography and the production which really makes settings shine. I don’t think I have ever seen a more colorful and vibrant representation of Mumbai on the screen or in real life and I live here! In this film, Mumbai and the Indian-ness of the characters can be called the star character of the movie instead of the human actors. At least for me, its what kept up my interest in the movie. For my first Merchant-Ivory viewing, I have to rate this as a damp squib. If this was brought out by Bollywood to tap the English market, I would have understood and not been so disappointed. Looking online, it seems that the Merchant-Ivory had little to do with this movie other than to underwrite it. It shows. Can be skipped.

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Watch Some Cinema Today

Being quite new to a city has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages mainly being the simple fact that everything you experience in terms of sound, sight, taste is coated with a thick varnish of newness. This sadly though doesn’t last as long as it should. For a person like me who usually finds himself pretty bored and that soon, its absolutely imperative to be able to find a suitable distraction. This is especially pertinent when one finds that there is nothing to do in the long wait between getting off work and sleeping. Our forefathers had hobbies, our generation has Tata Sky, mall tourism and the eternal question of “Where do we eat out today?”

This is how I found myself joining the membership program of BigFlix, an online as well as store-based DVD rental service started by the ubiquitous Reliance conglomerate. If you saw Wall-E and wondered which company would ever become like Buy & Large, well, Reliance would definitely be the top Indian contender. Anyways, the plans available seemed decent and pretty close to what’s being offered by competitors like seventymm.com and Catchflix. The only reason I went with BigFlix was that being a Reliance concern, I have the fond hope that they’ll throw a lot of money at the problem and build a gargantuan DVD library double quick.

I have no hopes that it will ever reach the breadth and depth of a Netfix but living in India, I’m willing to make a compromise for second best or third or fourth or well let’s just say that I hope they give it a good shot. From what little I’ve seen, I think they might be moving in the right direction. For e.g., the nearest BigFlix store near my place has the complete Merchant-Ivory oeuvre on the rack. Complete, I kid you not. Last week, my mind boggled at the sight of seeing Ingmar Bergman films in the rack next to Saw 2 and The Grudge. As an average Indian who still gets sticker shock on seeing DVD prices here, BigFlix and its ilk might be the best way to cop a feel at world cinema and not get burnt in the process.

Of course, for the tiny minority of us blessed (or formerly blessed) to be studying in the “elite” institutions of India and thereby doubly blessed by the presence of fat pipes to the Internet, such problems matter not at all. In less advanced institutes like where I studied, a small minority of us derived our sense of achievement from having watched (or having tried to watch) the entire IMDB Top 250 through the munificence of BitTorrent. In places like IIT, I have it from good sources that the levels of achievement are even higher, with attempts being made at the IMDB Top 500 and a very few intrepid souls even attempting to scale that lofty and distant peak named the IMDB Worst 100.

While I did have the fortune (and the curiosity) to have seen quite a number of movies over the years, there are still some that got away, quite like the cliched girl. Then there are some that I studiously avoided, after seeing the reviews on IMDB and their large groupie fan following on sites like Orkut and Facebook. For example, i gave a wide berth to the films of Wong Kar Wai, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and similar others, because I did not want to become the cinematic equivalent of the Proust-spouting “intellectual” in the corners of parties across the world. I belong to the clique which studiously avoids all cliques.

Having then seen Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express after finally breaking my rules, all I can do is kick myself for not having seen as much of his work earlier as I could. The movie was amazing because it showed that cinema is not just about the story but about the presentation and imagery, the setting of mood, the right music kicking in at the right time. Parts of it were multimedia art with the colors, the motion, the music and the dialogue popping out of the screen, flirting with 3-dimensionality. It wasn’t the greatest story ever told but you could see how the imagination of the director had taken the narrative to the next level. I’ll stop gushing now.

On my menu yesterday was Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s Amores Perros or “Love Is Dogs”. Please refer above to kicking myself. Though I had steeled myself to the prospect of disappointment, in the end I was up till 2 AM watching. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu also happens to be the director of 21 Grams and Babel, both of which I have seen and which he directed after Amores Perros. The underlying technique that he uses in all three movies is that of following parallel narratives that come together or diverge from one single event and the consequences thereof. It’s to his credit that it never comes across as a gimmick and that it actually helps in moving the movie forward.

What I really loved about the movie was the moral ambiguousness of the characters. There is no black and white in the movie which is what makes it so real and believable. If there is any moral redemption, then its wisely kept off the screen. The characters in the movie are flawed and it shows some of them being able to rise above these flaws and how some are still victim to its demands. In the end, its impossible to pass a moral judgement on any of the six principal characters because the dilemmas, emotions, urges that they pass through mirror our own. It’s difficult to watch the movie without seeing shades of ourselves in it. Or maybe its just me being all anthropic about it.

As you can expect, I have setup my queue on BigFlix to keep supplying me with whatever it can offer in terms of world cinema as well as less mainstream titles. Once these get over, my plan is to wade through the Merchant-Ivory collection with brief respites for commercial films. My usual sources of cinema recommendations are IMDB and Amazon’s “You Might Also Like” for films on the lesser side of the commercial film spectrum and Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes for the ones on the other. One good source for documentaries is Kevin Kelly’s True Films website which I would heartily recommend. If there are any other good sources out there, do let me know.

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1001 Movies To See Before You Die

Seems like it is the season for lists. Another list that I came across courtesy Kottke, on the 1001 movies that you have to see before you die. Now, I do find this list a lot more dubious than that on books, because can there be honestly 1001 ‘great’ movies in the short span of time that cinema has been around as a medium? Anyways, the list is here for you to see.

Out of the list I have slogged my way through a grand total of 170, most of this done over the last four years. Now I begin to see where most of my time has been going. The movies I have seen are given below. Some changes were made to the list, and they can be seen here.

The Constant Gardener (2005)

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Collateral (2004)

The Aviator (2004)

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Sideways (2004)

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

Lost in Translation (2003)

Chicago (2002)

City of God (2002)

Gangs of New York (2002)

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Monsoon Wedding (2001)

Moulin Rouge (2001)

Amelie (2001)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Memento (2000)

Traffic (2000)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Amores Perros (2000)

Meet the Parents (2000)

Gladiator (2000)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

The Sixth Sense (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

Fight Club (1999)

Being John Malkovich (1999)

American Beauty (1999)

Audition (1999)

Three Kings (1999)

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Ring (1998)

The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Run Lola Run (1998)

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Titanic (1997)

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Trainspotting (1996)

The English Patient (1996)

Independence Day (1996)

Fargo (1996)

The Usual Suspects (1995)

Seven (1995)

Heat (1995)

Clueless (1995)

Braveheart (1995)

Babe (1995)

Toy Story (1995)

Casino (1995)

The Last Seduction (1994)

Pulp Fiction (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Forrest Gump (1994)

Clerks (1994)

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

The Lion King (1994)

Schindler’s List (1993)

Philadelphia (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Thelma & Louise (1991)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Total Recall (1990)

Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Pretty Woman (1990)

Dances with Wolves (1990)

Goodfellas (1990)

Batman (1989)

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Rain Man (1988)

Die Hard (1988)

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

The Naked Gun (1988)

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

The Untouchables (1987)

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Top Gun (1986)

Platoon (1986)

Aliens (1986)

Brazil (1985)

Back to the Future (1985)

Out of Africa (1985)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Ghostbusters (1984)

Amadeus (1984)

The Terminator (1984)

The Right Stuff (1983)

Koyaanisqatsi (1983)

Once Upon a Time in America (1983)

Scarface (1983)

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

The Big Chill (1983)

Blade Runner (1982)

The Evil Dead (1982)

Tootsie (1982)

Gandhi (1982)

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1981)

E.T.: The Extra-Terestrial (1982)

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Airplane! (1980)

Raging Bull (1980)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Manhattan (1979)

Mad Max (1979)

Life of Brian (1979)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Alien (1979)

Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

Annie Hall (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Star Wars (1977)

All the President’s Men (1976)

Rocky (1976)

Taxi Driver (1976)

Jaws (1975)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

The Godfather Part II (1974)

The Exorcist (1973)

Papillon (1973)

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Solaris (1972)

The Godfather (1972)

The French Connection (1971)

Dirty Harry (1971)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Patton (1970)

M*A*S*H (1970)

Woodstock (1970)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Planet of the Apes (1968)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

The Sound of Music (1965)

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

My Fair Lady (1964)

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Apartment (1960)

Spartacus (1960)

Psycho (1960)

Ben-Hur (1959)

North by Northwest (1959)

Vertigo (1958)

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

12 Angry Men (1957)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

The Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

From Here to Eternity (1953)

Rashomon (1950)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

The Bicycle Thief (1948)

Casablanca (1942)

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941)

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

The obligatory links to other lists are below:

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