Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Oil and more


Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan as a bustling and diligently plotted mosaic of oil moguls, CIA operatives, lawyers and Middle Eastern pawns, "Syriana" is an energetic and exhaustive effort that ranks as one of the most exhilarating films of the year. Much like his previous screenwriting effort, "Traffic", Gaghan juggles time, space and a myriad of characters as they rotate and bounce around the solidifying idea of securing (and profiting from) the world's precious oil expenditures in the Middle East. Much has been made of "Syriana's" complex structure and obfuscated motives of the film's dozen or so main characters. Honestly, that's part of the film's greatness. I found it alluring to connect the dots between Jeffrey Wright's judicial turn as a lawyer (working for who knows) and the Sheik brothers (Alexander Siddig), people connected with most of the film's economic matters. Even more promising is the storyline that follows Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) as an energy consultant who finds himself inadvertently allied with the Sheik after his son is killed in an accident at the Sheik's palace. If that doesn't satisfy, you have George Clooney portraying a CIA operative who performs shadow missions in the Middle East and soon finds himself closed off and hung out to dry by the very people who sent him on his cloak-and-dagger assignments. His arch is the most defined in the film, ultimately transforming him into the film's patriotic conscience…. and the closest thing to the film's hero. Clearly, Clooney's role is there to appease the action starved fanatics who might stroll into the film expecting an old fashioned intrigue 'actioner', but even his performance and the arch of his character is interesting. Plus he gets to spout off nice snippets of dialogue such as "Guilty until investigated? Has the ring of being written as it's said." Another of the film's plotlines traces the progression of a young Islamic man (Mazhar Munir) from despondent, unemployed worker to suicide bomber fairly quickly (which has always been Gaghan's shortcoming as a screenwriter… paraphrasing his characters' lifestyle choices in a very clipped fashion) but actor Munir makes the most of it, effectively capturing the futility of one's dead-end status as well as the confusion that faith and obligation lend to that futility. Not completely successful in storytelling- two scenes involving William Hurt beg the question that there was more left on the cutting room floor- Gaghan straddles the uneasy line between entertainment and political commentary, but it's still a fascinating film that generates genuine tension in mood, sound, editing and ideas. I loved it.


Reaching back into the faults (jeez, is 2003 really that far back?), I finally tracked down a copy of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Doppelganger". Beginning as a creepy psychological horror and ending up closer to an Abbott and Costello comedy, the film stars Koji Yakusho ("Shall We Dance?", "The Eel") as a scientist who begins to see his (evil?) double. From the outset, Yakusho is working on a robotic breakthrough that will give paralyzed people the ability to telepathically control the 'arms' and 'fingers' of this robot so they can crack an egg or light a cigarette. When his project hits a stone wall, he begins to see himself in public places. Is this his imagination or has he really met his double? Kurosawa doesn't waste time in establishing the dual nature of his character. Everything is played with a straight face. Yakusho eventually accepts his double and begins to live with it, allowing the double to, literally, wreck his career and force him to hit the road with an assistant and the sister of a man who died after coming in contact with his double early in the film. Of course, Yakusho's double is everything he isn't in real life (please, no mentions of "Fight Club" are warranted.) The title of the film is a mask not only for its central plot, but for the film's overall schematic. Wildly erratic in tone, Kuroawa has made two films here; one plagued by eerie, slow moving pans in the beginning and the second full of humor and casual violence as it winds towards a completely absurdist finale. This is a world where, when the unwanted double shows up towards the end of the film, Yakusho's assistant gently picks up a hammer and utters "you want me to get rid of him?" This is certainly the funniest of Kurosawa's films, adeptly wavering between genre and mood with the precision and countenance of a master filmmaker.

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