The Namesake, The Lookout and Blades of Glory | Film Review | Indy Week
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The Namesake, The Lookout and Blades of Glory 

Double identities, crosses and axels

The Namesake opens Friday in select theaters.

click to enlarge Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn) and his family visit the Taj Mahal in Mira Nair's The Namesake. - PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX SEARCHLIGHT

Gogol Ganguli is mortified by his first name, a mark of his Indian parents' eccentricity. What possessed his father to name him after his favorite author, the Russian Nikolai Gogol? In The Namesake, Gogol struggles to decide what's meaningful to him amidst the masala of his suburban American life and his family's stubborn Bengali traditions.

Director Mira Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala's richly textured adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel is unusually faithful to the book's spirit, a meditation on how the most meaningful personal rebellions sometimes have deeply conservative roots.

The film's promos highlight Gogol's coming of age story, that of a weed-smoking, suburban slacker with a healthy libido. He's irritated by his parents' clannishness, their ties with other Bengali immigrants in the new world. He feels isolated from their more thoroughly assimilated neighbors and seeks a uniquely American identity in the arms of a WASPy blond debutante. Rather than being energized by her embrace of his exoticism, Gogol is shocked to find himself reevaluating his Indian-ness.

But, both parents and children in The Namesake step into the unknown. Irrfan Khan as his father, Ashoke, and Tabu as his mother, Ashima, are the spiritual heart of the film. Their wedded life begins with their arranged marriage in India. He's an engineering student in the United States, and this union requires his bride to consent to a terrifying relocation to icy, alien New York (on her first morning alone, searching the kitchen for something familiar to eat, Ashima makes a breakfast bowl of Rice Krispies, hot chili powder and peanuts). They care deeply about each other and their children.

The veteran Indian performers Khan and Tabu are not strictly "Bollywood stars" as some reviews label them, but instead alternate between popular films and "parallel" or art house cinema. Here, acting in English with Bengali accents, they devastatingly evoke that universal condition of parental bafflement over their child's determination to shed his family ties.

Why does Gogol, sensitively played by Kal Penn, the handsome Indian-American king of gross-out comedy (Van Wilder, Harold and Kumar...), not recognize what is in front of his eyes? In American movies, sympathy always lies with the kids' revolt against tradition. Parents are a dusty impediment in the quest for freedom, sex and love. When teen-aged concerns hit Hollywood in the 1950s, this cluelessness was epitomized by the scene in Rebel Without a Cause, in which James Dean rails against his weakling father, dressed in a frilly apron—in case you missed the point of Dad's emasculation.

In many other cultures, a focus on youth is balanced with respect for parental struggles. The desire to shatter home ties doesn't automatically make you a better person. A place in the family includes, not obliterates, the previous generation's aspirations. Gogol's emotional journey must encompass both East and West, and the old and new worlds. And as Gogol travels, so do we. —Laura Boyes

The Lookout opens Friday in select theaters.

click to enlarge The next Brando? Joseph Gordon-Leavitt in The Lookout - PHOTO COURTESY OF MIRAMAX FILMS

It is rare enough in today's assembly-line film industry to find works of concinnity founded upon sublime storytelling, acting and character development. But, it takes chutzpah for an acclaimed screenwriter to set such a script within a well-worn genre like the "heist flick," make it his directorial debut, and still produce a cinematic gem.

Then again, writer Scott Frank's experience adapting hardboiled Elmore Leonard novels such as Get Shorty and Out of Sight makes this choice of milieu more understandable and, indeed, apposite. In contrast to those works, however, Frank drains out the humor and amps up the melancholy in The Lookout, a smart, stimulating film that combines the seemingly incompatible virtues of art and accessibility.

Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was once his small town's high school hero blessed with an affluent family and athletic prowess, but his future is crushed when he slams his car into a combine, killing two friends, maiming another and leaving himself permanently afflicted with traumatic brain injury.

Four years thence, the erstwhile golden boy cannot recall or organize mundane everyday tasks without the handwritten promptings in his ubiquitous pocket-size notepad or the support of his blind, gruff roommate, Lewis (a marvelous Jeff Daniels). Once a teenage playboy, Chris is now unable to articulate simple pick-up lines. He whiles away his listless days struggling to master basic trade skills and working the graveyard shift as a janitor at a local savings and loan, where he yearns to work his way up to teller yet struggles to even recite the basic duties of the job.

However, Frank also makes Chris appear outwardly "normal"—he carries a card that informs strangers of his debilitating condition. This allows the audience to relate to an otherwise distinctive tragic figure on a more personal level. We do not see just the problems of a disabled person; we empathize with Chris' sense of regret over lost dreams as we would our own unfulfilled goals and aspirations.

Chris and Lewis' half-baked idea to open a breakfast-lunch eatery heads to the backburner once a former classmate, Gary (Matthew Goode), arrives and offers Chris a couple of opportunities to brighten his existence. First is introducing Chris to the duplicitous charms of a former stripper and groupie, Luvlee (Isla Fisher, last seen in Wedding Crashers as Vince Vaughn's randy love interest), and a gang of miscreants who quickly become Chris' surrogate family. More significant is some skullduggery in which Chris would help Gary and company burgle the bank.

Beyond merely developing the background of his protagonist, Frank shrewdly intertwines Chris' backstory with the film's criminal gist. Gary does not directly prey on Chris' abulia as much as his insecurity over a lack of freedom fueled by his condition and his continued reliance upon his wealthy parents who have yet to come to grips with the change in their son's life.

Frank's film not redefine its medium or genre, nor is it altogether original with echoes of Memento, Fargo and A Simple Plan, with which it also shares cinematographer Alar Kivilo. But, it boasts a superb cast led by Gordon-Levitt, who previously flashed his dramatic acumen in Mysterious Skin and Brick. One online critic wrote that Gordon-Levitt is "the most promising young American actor since Marlon Brando;" it is a reckless declaration yet one that bespeaks the actor's budding talent. Here, he fleshes out Chris with dexterity and nuance instead of reflexively casting him in the I Am Sam mold.

The Lookout is an intelligent neo-noir about a victim of life's circumstances tempted to place greed ahead of his most precious priorities, in the fashion of a Coen brothers film like Blood Simple or certain of David Mamet's morality plays. Frank concludes his film with an air of redemption and muted optimism that recognizes even the bleakest outlook is never devoid of hope, whether in life or the world of moviemaking. —Neil Morris

Blades of Glory opens Friday throughout the Triangle.

click to enlarge Men on ice: Jon Heder, Scott Hamilton and Will Ferrell - PHOTO COURTESY OF DREAMWORKS PICTURES

Hollywood loves to cash in on a sure thing and the latest fad to hit the McMenu of comedy productions is the spot-on satire of big-budget sports. Last year, Will Ferrell made a cash cow out of Ricky Bobby, the southern-bred NASCAR giant of Talledega Nights, a film that shaked 'n' baked' its way to success with a slew of redneck jokes and stereotypes that alluded to Southland stupidity through race car culture. And this year Ferrell takes on a new sports stereotype with his latest funny-man film, Blades of Glory.

Here, Ferrell channels the same dim-witted, bloated buffoon he's played in most recent films as Chazz Michael Michaels, a sex-obsessed, leather-clad figure skater. Joining Ferrell is Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite), who plays the Dorothy Hamill-haired rival, Jimmy McElroy. The film sets up the rivalry well, with Heder and Ferrell ripping insults at one another at each turn. "Sick, you smell like aftershave and taco meat" says Heder with a Dynamite-esque lilt in his voice before jabbing Ferrell in the ribs at the beginning of the film.

When Michael and MacElroy get into a rough and tumble catfight at the World Championship, they are stripped of their medals and banned from the sport. But the two discover a loophole in the system that will allow them to skate again, only in the couple's division. Bring on the gay jokes and double entendres.

It's easy to see why this film gets lots of laughs: the figure skating world with its "if you can dream it, you can do it" logos and dramatic underpinnings is all too easy to poke a finger at. But this film isn't all about the hilarity of powder blue sequined-suits and signature hair. There's a negative subtext underneath the shimmering surface of slapstick comedy as Ferrell and Heder make homophobic repartee come across like off-kilter comedic coolness. Ferrell and Heder recoil in disgust as they are forced to hold hands and stare lovingly into one another's eyes as they perform their first couple routine. And Ferrell's quick to point out that Heder's his bitch saying, "You're my pretty lady, McElroy" when the two must determine positions. This causes the film to enter dangerous territory.

Making fun of the Olympic sports may be just fine, and a bevy of figure skating icons are on board for the film (Scott Hamilton, Nancy Kerrigan and Sasha Cohen make cameos), but sometimes the film broaches the line of campy cultural fun by exploiting gay stereotypes for an already sexually anxious teenage set to laugh at and mock. It may be all fun and games, but Blades of Glory ultimately sets its sights far too low to be a medal contender. —Kathy Justice

  • Gogol Ganguli is mortified by his first name, a mark of his Indian parents' eccentricity.


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