Two movie reviews

Here are two movies that I squeezed into my frantic holiday schedule. Maybe I will see a couple more over the long weekend.

The Namesake (2006)

Americans tend to be insular people, generally ignoring movies either not made in or not produced by Hollywood. We are getting marginally better watching Indian movies. Bollywood movies are developing a minor cult following here in the states. Bollywood, like Hollywood, puts out a lot of dreck, but sometimes an Indian movie will surprise you. I was blown away by The Fall, Tarsem Singh’s visual masterpiece, when I reviewed it two years ago. The Namesake was produced the same year. In The Namesake, there is none of the singing and dancing you anticipate in an Indian movie; however it is true to being Indian in being a very family-focused movie. The Namesake becomes something of an exploration of how an Indian family copes in the distant and colder land called America far from their ancestral roots.

In India, arranged marriages are the custom, which is how Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (the famous Indian actress Tamu) end up a couple. Ashoke is a learned professor teaching in New York City and Ashima is from a well to do Bengali family who nonetheless has lived something of a sheltered life. The couple marries and she follows him back to New York City where she fights culture shock, loneliness and cold weather. Their marriage may be arranged but fortunately, they quickly learn to love each other, which is good because their son Gogol (Kal Penn) is on the way. The time is the late 1970s.

Gogol’s name is not accidental. Gogol was named after a famous Ukrainian novelist Nikolai Gogol, whose philosophical novels become married with a tragic train accident that a young Ashoke is fortunate enough to survive. Gogol’s novel The Overcoat inspires a young Ashoke to take risks, which is how he ended up in New York City. Embracing change is much harder for Ashoke, but their curly-haired son Gogol soon fills the void in her life. Gogol becomes thoroughly westernized, but in time adopts his “proper” name Nikolai (or Nick) to reduce the teasing that his name brings.

Many Indian movies are made on a shoestring. The Namesake is an exception and is blessed not only with a decent budget but also by fine acting and directing (by Michael Apted). At the same time, it stays true to its rather simple story of an immigrant family growing up in America. Tamu is a famous Indian actress but is largely unknown here in the states. The movie offers an opportunity for Americans to revel in her talent, for she is both beautiful and a fine actress. The same is true of Irrfan Khan, who plays her devoted but gentle husband whose life, for better or worse, is framed around the thoughts and observations of a dead Ukrainian writer. Penn as Gogol deftly mirrors the tensions inherent in his unusual upbringing, seemingly wholly out of touch with his culture, somewhat estranged from his family but who is handsome and intelligent nonetheless.

In short, if you have to watch an Indian family drama, it would be hard to do better than to spend two hours watching The Namesake. For an Indian movie, it’s pretty racy, as there is a nude scene (filmed from behind). While certainly not a spectacular movie, it renders a heartfelt, touching and very human story of a nuclear family stretched but not wholly torn apart over several decades by their adventure in the strange land called America.

3.2 on my four-point scale.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books continue to make good money at the box office, so sequels are inevitable. The third chronological sequel, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader arrived in theaters this month. Since my wife became fixated on the series in her childhood, I knew we were destined to see it as well as that big gentle furry hunk of godly liony well-groomed love, Aslan. (I guess he has plenty of time to lick himself clean.) Fortunately, I like a good fantasy so I did not mind joining her.

This third installment though feels very anticlimactic. The principle characters from the first two movies (Susan and Peter) are gone, but apparently, their sister Lucy (Georgie Henley) is still young enough to pay a return visit with her brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes). Narnia is a great escape, because back in England a war is still on, and Lucy and Edmund are forced to board with their cousin Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter), who is openly hostile to both of them for messing up his childhood. No question about it: Eustace is a thoroughly loathsome boy, so much so that several times in the movie I had to restrain myself from wanting to slap his 3-D projection. Rather than going through the back of the wardrobe, the three are pulled into Narnia through a nautical painting on the wall. They end up at sea but fortunately, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) is commanding The Dawn Treader. They are all quickly rescued while Eustace immediately resumes being irritable and unhappy about the whole thing and demands to be taken to the British consulate!

Things are going great in Narnia, however, and it appears they will have nothing to do. There is some alleged unpleasantness on an island far out to sea that they must investigate, which seems destined to change the loathsome Eustace. Also along for the ride are some of the animal characters we have come to love, including the swashbuckling mouse Reepicheep, voiced in this movie by Simon Pegg. (Presumably Eddie Izzard was not available.)

Eventually Eustace becomes entertaining in his irritableness (the actor at least is convincing in the part), and his love of gold somehow turns him into a dragon. This proves useful to solve the problem of the moment, which involves finding seven swords of former kings. We sort of expect some sort of major battle between the good and valiant citizens of Narnia, led by Caspian, Lucy, Edmund and Reepicheep, but compared to the first two movies this battle, much of which occurs in a tempest, feels and frankly is anticlimactic.

Which makes this third installment one you can safely miss. Maybe you can miss the next movie as well, since I am told Eustace is a recurring character in it. I hope that Narnia has cured him of his irritableness, but I am not sure I could endure another movie with the boy anyhow. So you get sort of what you expect going in, just less of it. It is all competently done, just not terribly compelling to watch. As for that fuzzy lion Aslan, God has never gotten on my nerves before, but he is starting to do so. He’s a bit too mysterious and mystical, and we see perhaps more of him that we should. Still, he can give a mighty roar. I am also getting tired of the whiteness of the series. I realize England during the Battle of Britain did not have a whole lot of people of color, but the absence of many people of color in Narnia, except as bad guys and occasional townies, is notable in our multihued reality.

This is a well-done movie with a B movie core, which means it earns a solid B, or a 3.0 on my four-point scale.