Harvard-educated, East Indian-born director Mira Nair remains a filmmaker one follows with anticipation, no less so with the arrival of her latest, "The Namesake," which opens here April 6 after wowing 'em in New York.
The tale opens in the late 1970s, on a train to Calcutta. A young man named Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) is reading a short story by Russian realist Nikolai Gogol when he encounters a fellow passenger who encourages him to expand his horizons and see something of the world. This chance meeting, together with the influence of the story and a pivotal event that follows, eventually set Ganguli on the path to marriage and immigration to the United States. But the husband and his new bride find that secular New York and its seeming remoteness are very much at odds with the warmth and familiarity that cocooned them in India.
Adapted by Nair and frequent collaborator Sooni Taraporevala from the 2003 novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, the film, like its source material, chronicles two generations of an Indian immigrant family with humane intent and close attention to detail. Although the movie is forced to compress much of the book's broad narrative, word has it that Nair and Taraporevala have done an exemplary job.
No surprise. Nair, who turned down an offer to direct the forthcoming "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," and who divides her time among New York, Kampala (Uganda), Mumbai and New Delhi, seldom does things by half measures. She was so taken with the idea of making "Namesake" - consumed is more like it - that she put already-in-progress adaptations of Tony Kushner's play, "Homebody/Kabul," and the Hari Kunzru novel "The Impressionist" on the back burner.
Her last feature, "Vanity Fair" (2004), successful despite its rather eccentric casting of Reese Witherspoon, and her Uma Thurman-Juliette Lewis pairing for "Hysterical Blindness" (2003) weren't quite at the level of her finest work, but she left herself a tough act to follow after delivering the best feature film of 2002 in any language, "Monsoon Wedding."
If you're not familiar with this filmmaker's earlier pictures, find them on video. Whether the Oscar-nominated "Salaam Bombay!" (1988), "Kama Sutra" (1997), "The Perez Family" (1995) or "Mississippi Masala" (1992), each has something distinctive to offer.
Meanwhile, Nair has two more projects in work. The first is a 12-minute film she's producing and directing for a collection of AIDS awareness shorts called "AIDS Awake," and the second an adaptation of "Shantaram," Gregory David Roberts' semi-autobiographical 2003 novel about a heroin addict who escapes from an Australian prison only to surface in the Bombay slums - as a physician. The film will star Johnny Depp.
Sony's big battalions
Drawing another gem from its deep cache of films, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is releasing a two-disc collector's edition of J. Lee Thompson's Academy Award-winning film, "The Guns of Navarone" (1961), on April 5. One of the most memorable cast-of-superstars war movies, this ripping yarn is based on Alistair MacLean's novel of an Allied infiltration team assigned to go behind Nazi lines and destroy two huge long-range cannons protected in a near-impregnable mountain fortress. Featuring Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Sir David Niven, Sir Stanley Baker, Sir Anthony Quayle, Irene Papas, James Darren and (briefly) Richard Harris, it is a movie that helped set the tone for such successors as "The Longest Day" and other war epics.
Also available from Sony on April 5 will be two-disc collector's editions of seven-time Oscar nominee "The Caine Mutiny" (1954).
In another vein, but worthy in its own right, is Sony's May 8 release of a new "extended-cut" version of Mike Newell's gritty gangster film, "Donnie Brasco" (1997), with excellent performances from Al Pacino, Johnny Depp and Anne Heche anchoring fine ensemble work.
Coming later this year is an "updated" (read: "really dumb") version of Neil Simon's classic "The Heartbreak Kid" (1972) with Ben Stiller in the old Charles Grodin role. Heaven knows who they'll get for the Cybill Shepherd part. The original film was a witty, smart, achingly funny tale drawn from a Bruce Jay Friedman short story. The remake is almost certain to be yet another abomination.
With Stiller, who used to care about the films he made and once showed great promise, you get little but calculated stupidity and pratfalls, a la Will Farrell. The fact that those raunch-meisters, the Farrelly Brothers, are making the thing removes all doubt.
Stiller may fare better opposite Tom Cruise in "Hardy Men," a feature film update of "The Hardy Boys," current in development by "Night at the Museum" director Shawn Levy. The plot calls for the brothers, fabled teenage sleuths of book and screen, to end their long estrangement to solve a big case.
Bits and Pieces
Western pirates are staples of Hollywood filmmaking. But Disney is introducing a Chinese sea bandit in "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End." Chow Yun-fat plays Capt. Sao Feng, who saves fellow skipper Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) from the realm of the dead in the third installment of the movie series, due out May 25. ... Variety reports that Warner Bros. has acquired the rights to Lois Lowry's Newbery Award-winning children's novel, "The Giver." Since its publication in 1994, a number of prominent filmmakers who shared the book with their kids have expressed an interest in making a feature adaptation of the story of a 12-year-old boy living in a futuristic, emotionally repressed "utopian" society. The book has been under continuous option since its release, but for one reason or another never went into production. Maybe this time. ... Coming up from the inimitable Ang Lee is "Lust, Caution," starring Joan Chen and Tony Leung, with a screenplay by Wang Hui-Ling and James Schamus. ... Writer-director Martin McDonagh's "In Bruges" features the potent acting trio of Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes and Brendan Gleeson. Also look for the burly Gleeson as a Yank in "Black Irish," the tale of a Boston family struggling to stay together.