Syriana

Syriana is a difficult political/economic thriller to watch on many levels, and challenging to process.

 

First of all the plot. Because George Clooney is in a film of this genre, we go in expecting it to be a political commentary and critique, and it is.  I have not read the book on which Syriana is based, See No Evil by Robert Baer (though I just ordered it from www.Amazon.com; it was out of stock at Barnes & Noble which I hit just after seeing the movie last Sunday),  but I want to. The film made me want to verify the truth of the film (even if the facts are not exact), because the film looks like a trip through the unsavory and unscrupulous underbelly of a world governed by the people who control the oil. And no, the United States does not come out looking good. The U.S. government, represented by the CIA (the only key female figure is like a vice-director of the CIA), looks really, really scary. Oil companies and the men (note men) who run them, even worse.

 

Syriana is directed by Stephen Gaghan who won an Academy Award for his script for the drug thriller Traffic in 2000. To be noted is that Stephen Soderbergh directed Traffic, and that Soderbergh and Clooney have an ongoing creative relationship that witnesses to their concerns about the world’s movement toward a global political economy over democracy, and profit over people. (Have you noticed the pattern coming from Hollywood yet? The Manchurian Candidate, In Good Company, The Constant Gardener and others? I don’t mind; I like films with ideas.)

 

Another sign of Soderbergh’s influence is Syriana’s technical style. It’s like a big screen dramatic version of the Soderbergh/Clooney HBO 2003 short-lived television series K-Street (a smart comedy I enjoyed.) There were myriad characters following lines of intrigue but we never knew enough to figure out the whole story because of the continual switching between the plot lines.

 

Syriana is a blend of Traffic for subject matter and K-Street for style. Oil is the drug, and there’s so much corruption at so many levels, it’s depressing. Syriana is not entertainment; it’s a sometimes blurry lesson in current events that is provokes (irritates) and evokes reflection and a response at the same time.

 

Here’s my take on the plot; for the names of all the actors, please see www.imdb.org. I think this is what happens:

 

An oil company in Houston wants the oil contract from Kazakhstan, but they lose to China. Meanwhile, they are merging with another U.S. oil company to become the fifth largest oil concern in the world. The new company outbids the Chinese for the oil from a small Arabian country run by a dying Emir and his two prince sons. The new oil company is corrupt. A lawyer is hired to investigate the new company’s actions and ends up being corrupted as well. A CIA operative Bob (George Clooney) delivers two missiles to some Arabs, but one is stolen, lost. Bob writes memos about the situation in the Middle East, but no one in the CIA wants to read them (we are never sure why). Bob is recalled and then given an assignment: to assassinate the older prince, who does not seem to favor U.S.interests, but he outwits Bob in Beirut. Bob is tortured for information, then the CIA recalls him, takes away his passport, and wants to lose him.

 

Meanwhile, an attorney and economic advisor to the Emir in Geneva, Bryan, (Matt Damon) is unhappy with his job, but visits the Emir in Spain. There his oldest child is accidentally killed (or so it seems). When Bryan visits the older prince in his country, he gives the prince sage advice, and the prince offers to pay him to be his advisor. The prince is a good man who wants to modernize his country and build an infrastructure to benefit his people. But the younger prince has the ear of the Emir, and only wants the profit.

 

Things do not end well.

 

I thought all the performances were excellent, even if I didn’t follow every detail of the plot as it looped and cross-cut across the landscape of the politics of oil. The older prince, played by Shahid Ahmed, should get your attention, one because he acts his part with depth, and two because he turns out to embody the goodness and soul of the story from the Arab perspective, as Bryan from the economic side, and Bob, from the political dimension.

 

But everyone sells their soul at some point in this story, and that’s troubling. If everyone sells their souls for greed, power, and pride, then what does that portend for the soul of the world?

 

Politics of oil? what about ethics of oil?

 

Don’t miss this film; it will make you brood – and pray.

Get Rich or Die Tryin’

The only reason I decided to see this film is because it was directed by Jim Sheridan, a director I greatly admire (In America, My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father). I also admire MTV movies – for the most part. The themes seem to want to dig in and raise up the characters from the worlds that are stifling them. At the end of the day, however, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ disappoints. Unlike Sheridan’s other films, or even the MTV films I have seen, no one gets lifted up very much.

 

But the film has street creds, I suppose, that it gets from writer Terence Winter who scripted many episodes of The Sopranos. The thing is Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is so over-the-top violent that to think that it represents the world of gangsta rap in America means we ought to stop buying this music so these guys can get real jobs (hoping they don’t fall back into drug dealing, of course.) The thugs in this movie make the mafia look like society gentlemen.

 

Marcus (50 Cent as the grown character) is a mannerly twelve-year old whose single mom is a drug dealer so she can keep him in tennis shoes (which are a huge status symbol to these kids.) When she is murdered, Marcus goes to live with his grandparents. He discovers he can rap as he grows older, but gets into selling drugs because it’s easier. He buys a car and gets himself a crew. He’s accepted among the drug dealing community, and pays his dues. He hooks up with a childhood girlfriend, Charlene (Joy Bryant), who is soon pregnant. Then there are turf shoot-outs and revenge killings between the gangsta’s and the local Columbian dealers. Marcus ends up doing time and makes friends with Bama (Terrence Howard) who becomes his agent when Marcus gets out of jail. Marcus wants to go straight, but when he decides to rob a check cashing place run by Columbians (as long as no one gets hurt), he is almost killed afterwards. He recovers in a house away from all the trouble with his wife and child – after the gansta boss threatens his family. Marcus decides to get revenge by humiliating the man through a song, well, rap. So, OK, he doesn’t kill the guy, but Bama does.

 

Does any of this sound familiar? 8 Mile, maybe?

 

The film’s biggest problem is that Marcus doesn’t show enough feeling as his character; he’s stiff (Charlene complains that he buries his emotions; but his problem is that the emotions he does show are not convincing.) Also, the revenge theme is so old. Marcus finds out who is father is (at the end) and who killed his mother (at the end), and he raps as though he has cotton in his mouth to a beat that’s, well, ordinary.

 

I am not sure why Jim Sheridan wanted to take on this project; perhaps to show that he really is “in America”? Usually Sheridan makes movies about people/families that reflect the broader social/political milieu in which they live and die. The www.imdb.org has 50 Cent saying that about “75% of this film is true.” But which 25% isn’t?

 

I thought 8 Mile was a good film – I’ve even seen it twice. I love the part where Eminem is riding the bus and gathering his lyrics from the world around him. This current film is from the Black ghetto/gangsta experience, I suppose, but the story evoked no empathy from me; it was not believable. The violence to humanity ratio was way off. 8 Mile was about creating art in a barren world; Get Rich or Die Tryin’ never comes near it, and I think it may die tryin’.

Pride and Prejudice

A wonderful two hour and seven minute version of Jane Austin’s classic novel of the plight of landed gentry women in reduced circumstances is in theaters now – and it is worth the price of the ticket.

 

I think everyone knows the story by now; it’s a matter of highlighting why this version of a young woman and young man, who take an immediate dislike to each other when they meet, harbor a secret interest in one another, and then end up married (depending on which film or television version you see), is worth seeing.

 

Kiera Knightly (Bend it like Beckham; Pirates of the Caribbean) plays second daughter Elizabeth with sweet energy; Donald Sutherland is a surprise as the pained Mr. Bennett, drowning in females; and Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies) is perfect as the panicked, screechy Mrs. Bennett. Matthew MacFadyen has been in movies and on television since 1998, but this is the first time I’ve seen him in anything. At first I could only compare him to Colin Firth from the 1995 mini-series, but after a while, he becomes acceptable in the role. Judi Dench as Lady Catherine de Bourg is, an always, perfect. My sister didn’t care for the younger sisters; overly loud and giggly.

 

The writer, Deborah Moggach, and director Joe Wright (both new to me), have managed to create Jane Austin’s rural English universe in a credible way. Visually, it’s beautiful, but very rustic and “brown”. The characters in all the dancing scenes seem compressed; perhaps the ballrooms were that small. And perhaps geese and other livestock did live in muddy yards outside the kitchen doors of the mansions. So while the “feel” or texture of this version of Pride and Prejudice is different from the mini-series, it still manages to draw us in andmake us care about the characters (except for Cousin Mr. Colllins, played to annoying perfection by Tom Hollander) – and the outcome of this tension between pride and prejudice. 

 

Now if only Deborah Moggach and Joe Wright can create a two hour and seven minute version of Jane Eyre (the one by Zefferelli doesn’t count; I didn’t like it), I will die happy.

Rent

Based on Puccini’s 1896 opera La Boheme (which was directed by Toscanini), Rent is the film version of the award-winning Broadway rock opera. It covers about a year in the life of a group of friends living a bohemian life in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and trying to make it as actors, dancers, filmmakers, musicians, and in one case, a teacher.

 

As the title indicates, the friends have to find a way to pay the rent to a former friend, Benny, (Taye Diggs) who went into business with the landlords. He offers free rent to Mark (Anthony Rapp) and Roger (Adam Pascal) if they will convince Maureen (Idina Menzel), Mark’s former girl friend who left him for a lady lawyer) not to stage a protest against the landlords.

 

It’s Christmas and cold outside. Collins (Jesse L. Martin, Law & Order) comes to visit Mark and Roger but gets mugged in the street. He is found and cared for by Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia). They go off to a Life Support group for people with AIDS.

 

Mimi (Rosario Dawson) is an exotic dancer and drug addict who lives downstairs from Mark and Roger. When Mark goes out that night, Mimi comes up the fire escape to ask Roger to light her candle because all the electricity to the building has been shut off because no one has paid their rent. Roger is attracted at first, but sorrow at losing his former girl friend to drugs, makes him turn away from Mimi.

 

Over the course of 525 948 minutes in a year (the best song I thought), these friends live and die, love and run from love, experience loyalty and disloyalty, and survive, indeed, find hope, even if they don’t want to be anything other than bohemians anyway.

 

Some critics have said there is a gay subtext to the film, but I don’t agree. The film (musical) is about this eclectic group of gays and straights who are friends, who live for today with no regrets. There is nothing “sub” about it.

 

The morality of the story is inconsistent because it exists and functions in a postmodern moral universe. One message the story communicates is: live a gay lifestyle, consequences don’t matter because of love, no regrets, live for today. At the same time it has a strong anti-drug message and those consequences do matter to the characters (both behaviors are life-threatening, so why the difference?). Friendship is the one bond that can never be broken for the friends – as it is for many people in our culture today. The story seems to want us to accept a gay lifestyle as normal, and this is a challenge to Christian belief.

 

I think Rent is an artistic experiment for family-friendly director Chris Columbus, and he succeeds quite well in a new genre for him. Rent is not a story, or film, that everyone will be comfortable with because it’s about loneliness, life on the street, accepting a homosexual lifestyle as normal (if it were only about accepting gay people that would be different but in this post-modern moral universe, it is not possible to reject the lifestyle without rejecting the person), and it’s gritty and dark. But it is a human story, and can evoke pathos, compassion, and empathy from the audience because it’s about what some people have to do to survive, and about others who choose to survive this way.  

 

So I asked myself: what would Jesus do if he met this group of characters? There is no doubt that they would welcome Jesus among them and that he would stop and share a meal with them. I think he would then begin a conversation with them, and invite them to follow him – an invitation he extends to all of us, everyday.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

After students and faculty attend the Quidditch World Cup (at an amazing special f/x stadium at some other location), the Triwizard Tournament comes to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Students from two other wizardry schools arrive at Hogwarts to compete, though only three names will be chosen from the Goblet of Fire. 

 

Harry (Daniel Radcliff), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Gint) are not old enough to put their names in for the draw (they must be 17). However, when Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) chooses the names, a fourth one rises from the flames in the Goblet: Harry Potter’s. Therefore, he must be included in the competition.

 

The three friends seem to be growing apart as adolescent issues arise; they must learn how to dance for the Yule Ball, who will ask whom to the ball, and then there’s Ron’s jealousy over Harry being in the competition.

 

As all this is going on, it seems that the Dark Lord Voldemort is on the prowl and Harry is not safe.

 

The plot for this fourth Harry Potter film (based on the book) is intricate, and I think it is the best film so far. Of course, the kids are older so the plot develops apace. It’s a transitional time for the young friends, especially Harry who decides to choose altruism over winning. There’s humor – and virtue (even gifts of the Spirit) in the story that can make for great conversation.

 

The Quidditch World Cup event is amazingly rendered, as are the three parts of the wizards’ competition. The denouement is a moment that demonstrates the transcendent nature of love, which has always been and remains the foundation of Harry Potter’s story.

 

For those who are concerned if Harry Potter is about the occult, here’s what I wrote last year for St. Anthony Messenger

“Educator Dr. Susan Reibel Moore offers a helpful distinction for parents who are concerned about the possible negative influence of the Harry Potter books or, for that matter, those of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Fantasy literature (and by extension, film) is imaginative and creative, and the worldview is benevolent.

“In the occult world, there is no comfort; there are no caring adults. The occult wants to recreate the world in a godlike way in order to control it. Fantasy wants to transform the world into a place where goodness wins the struggle.

“Is it wise for children to read Harry Potter and see the films? Parents know their children best; they know whether or not they can distinguish between fantasy and reality.”

 

(http://www.americancatholic.org/Messenger/Aug2004/Eye_On_Entertainment.asp#F2

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