Select Page
DVD Review: The Namesake

DVD Review: The Namesake

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Shakespeare thought so. Gogol Ganguli might disagree.

Gogol: So I’m two inches away from her. Her luscious lips part. Just as I’m about to kiss her, she looks at me and she says, “What’s your name?”
Friend: Gogol Ganguli.
Gogol: End of seduction 101.

In director Mira Nair’s film The Namesake, an adaptation of the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri, Gogol struggles to reconcile his American upbringing with his Indian heritage, as well as a name that represents neither and both at the same time.

Kal Penn, currently seen as one of the new fellows on House and best known as the stoner on a quest in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, takes a serious turn in The Namesake while demonstrating the same considerable charm.

Though it’s his character referenced in the title of The Namesake, for the first part of the film Gogol is nothing more than the name of his father Ashoke’s favourite author, Russian oddball Nikolai Gogol. The movie’s core is really the love story between Ashoke (Irfann Khan) and Ashima (Tabu), whose quiet devotion acts later as a counterpoint to their American son’s more expressive romances.

Our first glimpse of Ashoke has him reading the collected stories of Gogol just as the train he’s riding in derails. Ashima we meet as a young woman trying on the newly recovered Ashoke’s shoes just before the meeting that will lead to her marrying and accompanying this unknown man to New York.

As they get to know each other, their love becomes obvious but unspoken, and we follow them through a span of about 25 years and two children. The Bengali family lives their lives in two countries and two cultures, returning often to the warmth and colour of Calcutta, and lamenting what they’ve lost in their new life as much as they appreciate what they’ve gained.

One of the most obvious losses is the gap between their more traditional ideals and their Americanized children’s, particularly when Gogol distances himself from his family to the point of rejecting the name that represents the life his father might never have had, after that train wreck. (“We all came out of Gogol’s Overcoat,” Ashoke quotes.)

His parents had given him the name Gogol as a baby while waiting for inspiration for his proper name, Nikhil. While a five-year-old Gogol decides to keep that nickname, a teenaged Gogol regrets it. So adult Gogol becomes Nick, and Nick becomes a stylish, successful young man becoming part of his rich white girlfriend’s parents before ever introducing her to his own.

He doesn’t so much want to turn his back on his family or heritage as to be recognized as someone other than simply the product of them. But small, telling moments show that he is not always wholly accepted as a product of the country he was born in, either, and because of that he is in fact a part of both and neither at the same time.

One of the movie’s biggest weaknesses is that it feels very much like an adaptation of a book. The story has an episodic feel to it, with some of those episodes getting short shrift. Particularly underdeveloped is Gogol’s later relationship with a sexy Bengali woman, Moushumi (Mo), who first appears to be more his match, and who has chosen a third culture, French, to embrace. It’s an interesting but largely unexplored theme, the identity that is created from coming from one place, living in another, and embracing the otherness of a third.

But Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, Vanity Fair) is a filmmaker with a lush visual style, and The Namesake is full of scenes beautiful both for their artistry and for their affecting character moments. A scene of a mature Gogol trying on his father’s shoes echoes the earlier scene of a young Ashima, and airports become magical or heartbreaking gateways between two worlds. She makes us care about these characters even when their stories aren’t explored as much as they could be.

The DVD extras include a commentary with Nair, a few deleted scenes that give a bit more time to Mo, and a brief segment called “In Character with Kal Penn,” in which the actor is too erudite to be mistaken for Kumar as he insists that Gogol is comfortable with his identity but not the assumptions others make about it. (In a nice touch, given the themes of the movie, Penn is credited twice for The Namesake, under Kal Penn as Gogol, and under his birth name, Kalpen Modi, as Nikhil.)

In addition, “Anatomy of The Namesake” is a well-titled half-hour documentary dissecting the filmmaking process for a class at Columbia University. Director and producer Mira Nair is joined by others on her team to talk about everything from the vision of the film to financing to post-production. The detail is mind-numbing to a casual film fan like me who’s interested in behind the scenes machinations but can’t be bothered to understand exactly what a bond company is. Despite that, this is the kind of niche extra I think DVDs should do more often, in this case offering budding filmmakers a mini lesson.

The Namesake isn’t as tightly woven or ultimately satisfying a story as I’d have liked, but the warm, funny, touching film uses a specific immigrant experience to illuminate universal themes of family, identity, and loss, which made following its meandering path through the lives of these characters rewarding.

DVD Review: St. Elsewhere Season One

In those cold, dark days before House, even before Grey’s Anatomy and ER and Scrubs and Chicago Hope, there was St. Elsewhere. M*A*S*H might have come first, but St. Elsewhere made it a pattern – despite my squeamishness, I was hooked on medical shows, with their black humour pervading the life-or-death patient stories and frenetic personal lives of sleep-deprived, adrenaline-high doctors and nurses.

The first season of St. Elsewhere is now available on DVD and available to those of us with fond memories of the show that ran from 1982-88, and to a new audience who can discover this much-acclaimed but never highly rated show.

Producer and director Mark Tinker (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) remarks in an episode commentary that ER is like St. Elsewhere on speed. Watching this 25-year-old show now makes the reverse seem more accurate: St. Elsewhere is like ER on valium.

It’s easy to see how much modern medical shows owe to this series, with its stylish and thoughtful exploration of multiple storylines, self-contained episode stories combined with ongoing serial arcs, social commentary, and the slice of life realism with an absurd twist.

Inner-city Boston is the setting for St. Eligius, the run-down teaching hospital known derisively as St. Elsewhere, the perfect dumping ground for those who can’t afford treatment at the often-referenced rival Boston General.

Times have changed since the show broke new ground, and not just in the size of ’80s hair, shoulder pads, eyeglasses, and syringes. The show spells things out more than today’s audiences are generally used to, from spot-on dialogue that cements each character’s position on any given issue down to explaining the medical jargon that these days usually flies by unremarked. However, adjusting to the slower pace of the show brings the huge rewards of a show that does show its age, but also its ample heart and brain.

Most of the series’ pet issues could easily fit on today’s schedule, including commentary on health care costs, hospital politics, medical ethics, racism, and inner city problems of homelessness, poverty, and violence. Some of its pet topics have changed enough in the past 25 years to make the show’s take seem dated, including a female doctor’s regret at pursuing a career at the expense of a more traditional role, for example. Which isn’t to say the issue of women finding the balance between career and marriage/motherhood doesn’t exist anymore, but the dialogue around the issue has moved on.

The series follows a core group of residents under the direction of Dr. Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders), cancer-stricken Dr. Daniel Auschlander (Norman Lloyd), arrogant heart surgeon Dr. Mark Craig (William Daniels), and womanizing surgeon Dr. Ben Samuels (David Birney, who left the series after the first season). The distinctive characters are not all easy – or even possible – to like, but they’re all complex and compelling and impossible not to care about.

There are a slew of familiar faces in the regular cast who weren’t familiar at the time. Season one is, sadly, pre-Mark Harmon, but Denzel Washington appears in his breakout role as Dr. Philip Chandler, though one smaller than his placement on the DVD box would suggest. David Morse, most recently seen in a recurring guest role on that other medical drama, House, is Dr. Jack Morrison, the soul of this season one. Howie Mandel, with abundant hair and a meatier role than that of game show host, is the hyperactive Dr. Wayne Fiscus; Terence Knox is the troubled and troubling Dr. Peter White; and Ed Begley, Jr. is perfectly cast as the flaky but competent Dr. Victor Ehrlich. Nurse Helen Rosenthal is played by Christina Pickles, with a warmth that might surprise those of us who know her as Ross and Monica’s brittle mother on Friends.

The names behind the cameras are impressive, too. St. Elsewhere was created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey, who went on to create Northern Exposure. The late Bruce Paltrow, father of Gwyneth but, more to the point, respected producer and director, and Tom Fontana, a writer and producer on shows such as Oz and Homicide: Life on the Street, also contributed to the show.

It’s fun to play spot the famous guest star, with glimpses of before-they-were-famous names in often tiny roles, like Ray Liotta, Michael Madsen, Ally Sheedy, Christopher Guest, Judith Light, Jane Kaczmarek, a very young Candace Cameron, and, in a three-episode arc, Tim Robbins as a “terrorist” who set off a bomb in bank (the word is more jarring today than it would have been then).

Fortunately no one watched this show for the music, because even the cover songs they used – because they couldn’t afford the originals they wanted – are replaced with different versions for the DVD release. The incidental music is little better; when things get intense, the elevator music gets a little louder.

The 22-episode set comes on four double-sided discs, and don’t expect anything impressive on the technical side of things. The audio is stereo, and the non-anamorphic video is in the original full screen. No apparent restoration has been done, so the picture is as washed out and grainy as would be expected for video from that era.

The extras aren’t abundant, but what’s there is great. Producer/director Mark Tinker keeps a running commentary and tries his hardest to draw a few words from guest star Doris Roberts on the episode Cora and Arnie, which won Roberts her first of five Emmys.

A few featurettes splice together interviews with Tinker and some of the actors, including David Morse and Christina Pickles, to focus on that particular episode, Morse’s character Jack Morrison, and the show and its setting. The most fun is to be had in the featurette that centres around someone who had his first big break on the show – Tim Robbins, talking about his bad attitude as the terrorist character and as a young actor.

The extras are appropriately appreciative of St. Elsewhere‘s place in TV history, if the technical aspects of this DVD release aren’t. Though obviously a product of its time in many ways, St. Elsewhere was groundbreaking and timeless enough to be thoughtful entertainment for today, and deserving of a place in any DVD collection.

DVD Review: House Season Two

The season two release of House brings the most sublimely misanthropic medical show to DVD in a hugely improved technical package from season one.

This past season didn’t hit the highest highs of the first, which skewed the bell curve with the stunning, Emmy-winning “Three Stories.” But the series was even more consistently excellent and took more risks, spiraling its main character into darker places than before, and breaking the usual format more often and more assuredly.

A mesmerizing Hugh Laurie completely inhabits the character of Dr. Gregory House. A cynical idealist, he expects the worst in people, then is disappointed when he’s proven right. He’s insensitive but not uncompassionate. The most moral character to ever have a drinking, gambling, and hooker problem, and the most likeable character to treat people with such utter disdain, House is as reckless with his patients as he is with himself, though with better cause. He gets the cases no one else can figure out, and each episode revolves around his search for the medical truth, which is usually buried in some personal truth.

That may be the show’s formula, but it’s not entirely predictable. Plot and character revelations are often as surprising as they are logical. Everybody lies, as House says, and the motive for the lies tends to be the key to the case and to the character.

Even on repeat watching, many of the medical mysteries are still a mystery, because the path to the final diagnosis can be so convoluted, it’s difficult to remember the specifics of the journey or the destination. The medical case of the week allows for some terrific guest stars, including LL Cool J (“Acceptance“), Ron Livingston (“TB or not TB“), Cynthia Nixon (“Deception“), and Howard Hesseman (“Sex Kills“).

The best episodes use the medical case to illuminate House’s character in new ways, explore intriguing ethical issues, and take unexpected turns. But it’s the ongoing personal stories that offer the additional hook. Even when they aren’t completely cohesive or consistent, they are a reason not to miss a single episode of this hybrid procedural-character study.

Season two delves into House’s twisted romantic life, as he alternately repels and pursues ex-love Stacy Warner (Sela Ward). Other longer-term story arcs include the marital troubles of House’s friend and emotional interpreter, Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), and tension and changing dynamics among House’s team of doctors.

Need supposedly objective proof of the show’s quality? Besides Hugh Laurie’s numerous accolades, which include an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe, the show was nominated for best drama at this year’s Emmys, earned Peabody and Humanitas awards, and writer Lawrence Kaplow won a Writers Guild Award for the episode “Autopsy.”

That was one of a few stand-out episodes of a stand-out show’s second season, which showed no signs of a sophomore slump. I’d name format-shattering “The Mistake” and “No Reason” as other highlights. Even the least successful episodes are still entertaining, thought provoking, and witty, and often better than almost anything else on television.

Which isn’t to say the show is flawless, and season two captures the weaknesses as well as the strengths. House falls into familiar ruts, particularly episodes that rely on the team or his boss, Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) doubting House’s abilities.

While the episodes are largely self-contained, the longer story arcs are occasionally frustratingly paced. At the end of season one, for example, House’s ex, Stacy, was introduced as a recurring character, but she was left with little to do in some episodes, and the will-they-or-won’t-they felt both drawn out and then rushed.

An even more significant failing is the underdeveloped secondary characters. While they each have defined personalities – Eric Foreman (Omar Epps) arrogant, judgmental and driven; Robert Chase (Jesse Spencer) laid-back and obsequious; Allison Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) dangerously empathetic yet shrewd – they’re the most likely to serve the plot at the expense of consistent characterization, often in order to represent all sides of an argument, or to stand in contrast to House’s opinion.

Once or twice a season, House’s team gets episodes specifically designed to showcase their characters. This season, it was Foreman’s turn in “Euphoria,” Chase’s in “The Mistake,” and Cameron’s in “Hunting” and “Spin,” though she fares better overall than the boys. She is, in fact, set up as something of a moral compass – an idea made overt in “Daddy’s Boy” – though the needle can be a little shaky at times, like when she’s dismissive and even cruel to a mentally ill patient. But in many episodes, all three are little more than a medical Greek chorus, guiding us through the jargon of the case of the week in sometimes clunky expositional dialogue.

Despite its flaws, House is one of the most entertaining dramas on television … and one of the funniest comedies, if it weren’t faintly ridiculous to classify it that way. Frequently touching, thought-provoking and challenging, the show raises issues such as patient rights, transplant ethics, and the sexualization of teens. In fact, with the focus on illicit sex as a key factor in so many diagnoses, perhaps this season should be played in schools to scare kids into abstinence, despite the parental warning FOX insists on before each broadcast.

Technical Quality

The technical presentation of the season two DVDs are a huge leap forward from last year’s season one discs. This time, Universal has splurged for what-should-be-standard anamorphic widescreen, and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound.

DVD bonus features

The extras are decent, though not much extra effort was involved in putting them together. Most are reworkings of existing footage, like a silly segment which is short enough not to belabour the joke, which is pretty much delivered in the title: “It’s not lupus.” They could have easily chosen vasculitis or paraneoplastic syndrome, too, but it’s nice to see they have a sense of humour over the trusty standbys in the differential diagnosis scenes.

My extras wish list didn’t include hearing Lisa Edelstein and Jennifer Morrison perform two scenes in Valley Girl accents, but they’re worth a giggle. I can only imagine it’s an in-joke, maybe something the actresses started to do on set to relieve tension, instead of something a DVD producer came up – “you know what would be a GREAT idea?” But you know what? Morrison and Edelstein make it work by being just so charming and committed to the joke, they, like, totally put a smile on my face.

Less baffling and even more enjoyable is a blooper real. After reading interviews where Laurie describes himself as a pain in the ass on set, he demonstrates a more adorably goofy side than anyone playing such a prickly character has a right to possess – but he also swears like only a character on HBO has the right to do (bleeped out, because this is a network show, after all). It’s nice to see these lighter moments that aren’t simply a flubbed line repeated over and over again, and funny asides from the actors plus some ad libs gone wrong.

More meaty is the “Evening With House” hosted by critic Elvis Mitchell, which gathers the entire cast and the executive producers to talk about the show. While it’s got some nice insight and repartee, it’s a minor disappointment that it was edited so that occasionally the context of the participants’ remarks are not immediately obvious. I’m sure hardcore fans, the ones who pour over things like DVD extras, the ones like, well, me, would have been more than happy to have the uncut version in their hands.

A welcome addition are episode commentaries on “Autopsy,” the episode that won writer Kaplow a Writers Guild of America award, and “No Reason,” the mind-bending season finale written and directed by creator David Shore. Two commentaries may be paltry, but it’s better than last season’s grand tally of none. While it may be disappointing that none of the cast were involved, particularly Hugh Laurie, Shore and fellow executive producer Katie Jacobs do a fine job, except when they succumb to the malady of many DVD commentators, of watching the show instead of talking about the show.

To Buy or Not To Buy?

For House fans, season two is a definite required addition to a DVD collection, not just for the high rewatch value of the episodes, but for the glimpse behind the scenes, all packaged in a fine technical presentation.

DVD extras … or essentials?

As movie fans know, but what some in the movie industry don’t seem to realize, a DVD is more than just a film on a sparkly portable disc. DVD extras have the potential to turn a good film into a great film experience, promoting fan engagement, adding value entertainment, and even providing budding filmmaker education.

Bill Cunningham is in the business of creating DVD Premieres — movies that go directly to DVD without a theatrical release — and he recently shared some behind-the-scenes insight into those behind-the-scenes DVD extras.

“I hate the term ‘extras.’ To me, they are essentials,” said Cunningham. “After all, you are selling the DVD experience. To paraphrase HBO, ‘It’s not film, it’s DVD.’ That means that people expect commentaries and interviews and behind-the-scenes features that bring them into the world of the film. Audiences expect to have further insight into the world of the film and into the filmmaking process.”

The writer and DVD producer blogs about the industry on DISContent, and he’ll also be a panelist at this weekend’s Scriptwriters Showcase in a Sunday session called “DVD Extras: Wave of the NOW.”

“We will be discussing the creation of DVD extras and how they are written – either before or after the fact,” said Cunningham. “Hopefully we’ll get to go into writing for the DVD Premiere market – opportunities there for new writers to break in.”

The session is designed for “people who want to break into the business and learn about DVD – what it is, how it’s different than theatrical releases and what that means to the industry, and how to write for DVD Premieres,” he continued.

Cunningham has the same frustrations as the rest of us fans: DVD extras put together with little imagination or preparation, commentary with overlapping discussion or long pauses, and – that worst of all sins – bare bones releases followed by a special edition that tempts us to fork over our money twice for the same disc.

“I wish that the studios would release a quality edition the first go-round,” he said. “If they make money — if people still buy them — then who am I to argue? I do wish they would include a discount coupon on the purchase of the expanded DVD when it comes out. Oh well.”

The amount of extras effort put into a DVD is based on the sales predicted by marketing executives, who decide on a budget. “It’s also what they can negotiate with the actors in terms of promotion for the film,” said Cunningham. While the film is being shot, a DVD producer is hired to capture interviews and featurette material.

“For classic releases and the indie DVD labels it’s a bit different, as in many cases you’re doing specialty items far after the fact,” Cunningham explained. “This means a different kind of budgeting and finagling to see who’s still available to be interviewed or to do commentary, and how much they are going to cost to bring them into the studio.”

Money isn’t the only consideration, however. “On the indie side of the house, you have to remember that most discs are DVD5s, so you only have 90 minutes or so for the movie and about 30 minutes for the extras,” said Cunningham.

He most admires DVD producers who “have a historian’s attitude with movies – they want to reveal and preserve the film and the story behind the film.”

He named companies such as Blue Underground, Criterion and Anchor Bay, and “there’s also Tokyo Shock/Media Blasters, who are bringing some really idiosyncratic and eclectic material from Asia here to the west.”

Some DVD extras he admires include the Matrix trilogy, the Alien quadrilogy, King Kong (both the new and classic versions) Lawrence of Arabia, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Hills Have Eyes, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

“The Sin City DVD special edition was excellent – all of (Robert) Rodriguez’s extras are excellent,” he commented. “The same can be said of (Steven) Spielberg’s DVD producer, Laurent Bouzereau.”

For TV sets, he said: “All of the 24, MI-5/Spooks, Battlestar Galactica sets have been good. The Shield is really insightful as to their production and creative process. Nip/Tuck is another good set.”

Cunningham thinks of extras as a learning opportunity for new filmmakers, too. “When I was a kid, I used to read Famous Monsters, Fangoria and Starlog magazines,” he recalled. “In those magazines, they always had behind-the-scenes photos and features, and they were a great resource in learning how to put a movie together.”

“I wish more studios got into the teaching the business that way – maybe we would have better films,” he added. “I find that Robert Rodriguez’s films have a wealth of info on them, and I wish more producers would think of structuring their extras in the manner that he does.”

You can hear more about creating DVD extras and much more at the Scriptwriters Showcase, an industry conference with panels featuring screenwriters, agents, managers, producers, and development executives in film, television, and interactive media, presented by Final Draft and scr(i)pt magazine. For more information, visit their website.

Ghost Dog delivers killer entertainment

“Nothing makes sense anymore,” says a character in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (now available on DVD).

In a movie where a black American man follows an ancient Japanese code to serve his Italian-American mafia boss, the most likely explanation is that the protagonist is not following the same definition of sense as most others.

Forest Whitaker is Ghost Dog, a character who, if not exactly crazy, is not exactly sane, either. A hired assassin, he works for the mafia underling who once saved his life. When a hit goes wrong, however, the mob turns on Ghost Dog.

“If one were to say in a word what the condition of being a samurai is, its basis lies first in seriously devoting one’s body and soul to his master,” reads Ghost Dog from his bible, Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai.

But does the master-retainer relationship have any meaning when the master doesn’t follow – or even know about – the samurai code? Ghost Dog seems not to care.

In fact, he seems not to care about much. An almost palpable melancholy emanates from Ghost Dog, who becomes animated only in the presence of his beloved carrier pigeons. Whitaker brings an oddly innocent quality to the role, allowing the viewers to be drawn to the introverted character.

His alienation from the world around him is nicely told in brief encounters with others in his neighbourhood. His best friend is a Haitian who speaks only French, which Ghost Dog does not understand, and his only other human connection is with a little girl named Pearline. Their interactions provide some genuine levity in the occasionally blackly comic but often sombre film.

Images of death abound, including the not-so-subtle name he adopts, and his actions indicate a man who is living a kind of life after death.

In the end, Ghost Dog’s reliance on the samurai ways seems to be a contradiction he does not understand. He quotes the Hagakure: “Although one would like to change today’s world back to the spirit of 100 years or more ago, it cannot be done.”

With his isolationism and reverence for the ancient Japanese code, Ghost Dog does not fit into the world he has created for himself.

Directed by Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man), Ghost Dog lingers on its character development and philosophy without abandoning the shoot-em-up action to be expected in a story about Mafiosos. It also sends a nod or two in the direction of obvious influence Akira Kurosawa, director of the Japanese classic Rashomon.

Originally published in The News (Mexico City), October 2, 2001.