Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review: Syriana

When John Locke finished watching that first Dharma Orientation film in the second season of Lost, his immediate reaction was both emphatic and understandable: "We're gonna need to watch that again!" I suspect that many of the people who've ventured into the complex and dense world of Syriana may have come away with that same feeling. (I know that my wife and I both remarked on it!)

At its heart, Syriana is about the oil business. As such, the film focuses on a Middle Eastern region that's embroiled in a big, controversial oil deal, an American business analyst (Matt Damon) who becomes tangled up in the ambitions of one of the region's princes, a past-his-prime CIA operative (George Clooney) tasked with assassinating that same prince in order to further an American agenda for the area, a high powered law firm associate (Jeffrey Wright) who's supposed to investigate the aforementioned deal and uncover just the right amount of dirt to appease the Department of Justice's concerns about any malfeasance surrounding it, and a Pakastani father and son who lose their migrant jobs as a result of the transaction. And to be honest, that's really only skimming the surface in terms of the many intertwined plot threads to be found within the two hours of entertainment that Syriana provides.

Like Babel a year or two after it, this ensemble piece thrusts the viewer right into the thick of things with little or nothing in the way of a guidebook. You are, quite literally, expected to figure it out as you go along. And I don't mind that sort of approach at all, as long as it pays off in the end. In my opinion, Syriana does just that. The pieces do all come together, although certainly there's a desire at the end to watch it all over again, in order to make sense of many of the earlier scenes.

With all of the balls that the story has to keep in the air simultaneously, it still manages to deliver some memorable - and powerful - lines. When Wright's lawyer character brings his first hint of a bribe to a government official, the other's reaction is to launch into a diatribe against the naivete of the lawyer's outlook:

"We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it! Corruption is our protection! Corruption keeps us safe and warm! Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the streets! Corruption is why we win!"

Thousands of miles away, Damon has lost one of his two young sons due to an electrical malfunction within a swimming pool owned and operated by the family of Prince Nasir (played by Alexander Siddig, familiar to fans of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as Dr Bashir) and as a result his firm has been awarded a seventy five million dollar real estate deal by the Prince. Faced with that news, Damon responds in deadpan fashion with, "Great! That's great! How much for my other kid?"

An eerie scene later in the film shows Damon's marriage beginning to disintegrate, as his wife (Amanda Peet) continues to grieve for their lost child while the analyst seems to have moved on. The surviving son plays in a fountain - echoing the watery death of his older sibling - while his parents argue on a nearby park bench. During that scene, there's a second child shown to be playing with the son, but he's only seen from one perspective and not the other. Perhaps it was a simple case of coincidental casting, but it very much looked to me like the other boy was the dead son, and that only Damon could see him (not the wife). One possible interpretation of this scene, of course, is that Damon's character is still mourning the loss in his own way, despite what his wife thinks. Or maybe it was nothing at all.

The tale of the young Pakastani (Mazhar Munir), whose employment, along with that of his father, was cut short by the impending oil acquisition, is probably the most moving in the film. He's easy prey for a Muslim terrorist cell, who first appeal to him on religious grounds before filling his head with thoughts of martydom. The script thankfully casts him in a positive light throughout, bucking against the current trend to paint such characters as ignorant, hateful or alien. And really, as Syriana clearly shows, he ends up in the only other booming business in the region besides oil, and the link between the two is pretty conclusively drawn. The videos made by the martyrs-to-be are particularly chilling and serve very well to remind us that these are simply young men who've been lead astray by forces every bit as compelling and destructive as drugs and crime are in our environment.

A powerful case is made, throughout the film, for why American interests may talk about wanting democracy and cultural advancement in the Middle East, but their actions speak louder than words. After all, it's much easier to suck the resources out of a mostly-ignorant region than it ever would be to do so if that region had invested in building up its infrastructure and educating its people.

All of the acting in Syriana is first-rate, and with a budget as small as I suspect that it was for this movie, that's an impressive feat. William Hurt provides a couple of outstanding cameos, and Chris Cooper threatens to steal every scene that he's in (as usual). He kills with the line, "I'd be real careful. You dig a six foot hole, and you'll find three bodies. But you dig twelve, and maybe you'll find forty." Who can hear that terrific pronouncement and not be reminded of Sherrif Sam Deeds, in Lone Star? Not me, that's for sure!

Syriana is a great movie that rewards you for paying attention, and for figuring out what another film might've spoon fed to you instead. I tried to think of some aspect of the production that didn't work for me, but came up empty. It's just strong from start to finish.

Rating: ****

Friday, January 25, 2008

Quantum Of Solace? I Didn't See That Coming!

The name for "Bond 22" has been announced: Quantum of Solace. I had to go look up "quantum" to even figure out what it meant (a quantum is "the smallest physically realizable unit of something") and I'm guessing that I won't be alone in that ignorance. Since "Bond 21" (aka Casino Royale) concluded with 007 seeking vengeance for what happened to Vesper Lynd, it sounds like he'll find only what the title suggests. As such, I suppose that's not too bad of a name for a Bond film.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Review: Cloverfield

If The Blair Witch Project had sex with War of the Worlds (2005), the product of that unholy alliance might just be named Cloverfield.

When I first caught "Cloverfield fever" back in July of last year, I had it pretty bad. That initial trailer, with the "We'll Miss You, Rob" partygoers segueing into increasingly disturbing scenes of hysteria, and punctuated by the sequence where the head from the Statue of Liberty bounces off a building and then comes bounding toward the viewer... yeah, OK, it really grabbed me! I loved the intimacy of the scenes that were shown, mainly because they seemed to draw you right into the action with every bit of the disorientation that you feel while in the midst of an actual crisis. That seemed like a pretty powerful device to use in providing a thrill ride of the type that I usually like in the big disaster flicks.

Well, tonight I got to sit in that ride for almost ninety minutes, and I've decided that a little of that goes a long way! I'm not sure just what more the entirety of the movie added to my experience from the trailer six months ago. Sure, I got to see more scenes of people running around, a few reasonably clear views of the monster(s) and enough herky-jerky camera work to last me - and I'm not kidding here! - for the rest of my life! But it didn't really add up to all that much more than the trailer itself, in terms of explaining what's going on, why it happened now, whether it's an isolated event or part of something bigger, or even what form the resolution to the story takes!

That last point is really the crux of Cloverfield, and as such, you'll either love it or hate it. As with Blair Witch, the storytelling device is a handheld video camera that provides the movie viewer's only access to what's happening throughout. At times, that's effective (as the trailer conveyed) but for much of the film it was more frustrating than entertaining. Whether it was the crappy perspectives on the scenes that you really wanted to see, or the tendency to throw you out of the moment every time that a character-in-danger nevertheless had the presence of mind to point the handheld in the right direction, I found the central conceit of the "camera POV" increasingly in the way of my ability to enjoy the experience. Twice in the movie, characters are killed who we're supposed to care about, and yet the only way that I knew they were dead was through subsequent lines of dialogue... which kind of weakens the dramatic impact, if you know what I mean!

Having gotten that off my chest, though, there are definitely some exciting moments in Cloverfield. The first appearance of the... smaller threats... is done very well, although the punch that it might've delivered is watered down just a bit by some news footage shown on a TV screen shortly before that. There's a perilous journey from one high-rise to another - made possible by the fact that one of the buildings has tipped over onto its neighbour! - and it's reasonably effective, but once again I couldn't help but think of how much better it would've been if we hadn't been tied to that one stupid camcorder! I had to laugh out loud when two of the main characters survived a helicopter crash with nothing more than cuts and bruises (the chopper itself was a twisted, smoking wreck!) but some of the amazing shots from inside the vehicle just moments before that probably made up for it!

Overall, I'm glad that I saw Cloverfield in the theatre, because you really do get the full impact of the intimate cinematography that way. I think that War of the Worlds (2005) probably did a better job of showcasing the "man on the street" perspective within the framework of an "Oh my God this can't really be happening" set of events, with its iconic images like the sinking of the ferry, the flaming train and the last ditch assault by the military, but on the other hand it's pretty tough to top the Statue of Liberty's head lying amidst a pile of midtown rubble! I think the nausea-inducing camera work will turn many off, but if you can handle that without losing your dinner, Cloverfield represents a mildly entertaining hour and a half ride.

Rating: ** 1/2

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heath Ledger Dead!

Very sad and shocking news today that The Dark Knight's very own Joker, Heath Ledger, was found dead in his home today. I'm sure that all of the details will come out over time, but at 28, it can't be considered anything but a life cut prematurely short.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


In case anyone other than me cares: the Justice League of America film that George Miller was set to direct has been put on-hold pending the WGA strike. If I had any high hopes around this project, I'd probably be disappointed to hear this. But seeing as I expect it to be a train wreck, this may actually count as an "act of mercy." And no, I don't really know who George Miller is, and can't even be bothered to look up his filmography (though I suspect I'd be underwhelmed if I did).

Those truly desperate to read all about this development can do so here.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Review: Terminator - The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Tonight saw the premiere of the - OK, I'll say it! - "highly anticipated" new TV series that spins out from the events of the first 2 Terminator movies. Nowhere to be seen are the Governator or Linda "the former Mrs James Cameron" Hamilton in the roles of the cyborg from the future and the titular Sarah Connor, having been replaced by a no-namer and Lena Headey, respectively. That's no surprise to anyone who knew anything about this series coming in, but it probably still bears mentioning, given the popularity of the movie series.

In fact, that legacy from the movies is one of the stranger aspects of tonight's series premiere. At several points, I wondered what sense a viewer could make of the proceedings if they'd never seen a Terminator movie before. As we all know, time travel is the cause of headaches for many, and while the premise of the Terminator film franchise is standard fare for science fiction fans the world over, what about someone raised on reality TV and sitcoms? Would they simply give up in frustration or stick with it in the hope that all would be made clear eventually? A little more backstory might not have been a bad thing for the first episode, beyond what squeaked out in a few lines of dialogue. In general, the beats of the 2nd movie are simply repeated here more or less, at least for the first two-thirds of the episode.

In addition to those gripes, I was mildly bothered by the way in which Sarah and John Connor were repeatedly tracked down as they moved around from location to location, with little in the way of explanation given. One of the many outstanding aspects of Terminator 2: Judgment Day was the way in which the plot moved along very tightly, with no leaps of faith or contrived events needed. Every getaway in that movie was clean, and then something would happen to explain how the pesky T-1000 would catch up with them once again. I hope that what we saw tonight isn't indicative that the series will play fast and loose with such things, as it'll surely get very tired, very quickly.

Putting those complaints aside, I liked what I saw. Summer Glau is an interesting choice in the "good Terminator" role, and it's great to see her again after the ill-fated Firefly series (and Serenity movie). I fear that we're going to end up with human-Terminator romance between Connor and the shapely cyborg, but I'll reserve judgment for now. The writers still need to work harder to make us believe that she's super-strong, which should be all the more shocking if and when it happens, considering her slight frame and doe-like eyes!

The rather significant twist near the end of this episode was quite impressive, and unexpected by me. Most of the episode takes place in 1999, two short years after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but then the three main characters jump forward in time to 2007! Besides moving the action to current day - and thereby sparing people like me from spending the episode looking for anachronisms in the 1999 scenes - this development opens up all kinds of possibilities. By skipping ahead 8 years, the character of John Connor can stay a teenager while pushing the "rise of the machines" date into our future, which of course is important to the current set of viewers (we already know that Skynet didn't come online in the past, for example). It's unclear whether the show will deal with it or not, but the leap into the future also provides some potential for paradoxes, as we can assume that "future history" has been changed by that action. Lots of food for thought there!

Fortunately, if the pilot is any indication, the worst aspect of the second Terminator movie has been avoided, as this version of teenage John Connor is fairly easy to take. Similarly, his mother Sarah is still desperate, driven and full of piss and vinegar, but not all-out mental like her earlier incarnation had tended to be. I had wondered, when I first heard about this series, just how that level of intensity could ever be sustained in a weekly TV drama, and it looks like they're dealing with that problem by dialing it down just a bit. I consider that a wise choice, personally.

While I wouldn't call the premiere of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles a rousing success, it entertained me thoroughly for an hour, and put more effort into it than, say, Bionic Woman, ever did. I expect to stick with this series for the foreseeable future, or until Fox cancels it and then refuses to air the last several episodes...

Rating: ***

Review: 3:10 To Yuma

I have a certain taste when it comes to Westerns. Give me Deadwood over Silverado, for example. I don't want to see Roy Rogers singing to Trigger--I want to see tired cowboys trying to be good men, but still eyeing the whore at the end of the bar, knowing it's a hundred miles of dirt road until the next town. I don't want bullets to simply cause a gash in an arm--I want to see guts blowing out the back, septic infection, and the fear that hits a man when he's been gutshot. That's my Western.

3:10 to Yuma is almost my kind of Western.

At it's heart, 3:10 is about honor--the honor of a man towards his family, and the honor that can exist among men. And yes, that sounds trite, but it's a fundamental component in the narrative structure of most good Westerns.

In the film, Russell Crowe plays a murderous bank robber called Ben Wade--a rock star of his time. Everyone knows of him, most kids want to be him, and he's very comfortable in his role as villain. Because of his own weakness (strength?), he ends up being captured, and has to be transported for trial. Signing on to accompany Wade is Christian Bale's Dan Evans, a Civil War veteran who is watching his family drown beneath debt as his attempts at farming fail and fail again. With a paycheque of $200 coming his way if Wade makes the titular 3:10 train to Yuma, Evans is doing what he feels best for his family. Unfortunately, Wade's gang--a bloodthirsty pack of amoral monsters bound only by their loyalty to Wade--will do anything to rescue him.

The highpoint of this film are easily Crowe and Bale. Crowe is superb as the dark hearted villain with depth (he quotes from Proverbs, and has no use for people who don't read)while Bale shows a determined exhaustion to do what's right. Some of the scenes hint at political statements regarding the present day (in one scene, Wade is tortured with electricity, which is denounced as 'immoral'). But this doesn't overpower the film, leaving the morality tale to unfold as it should.

Yet there's an oddness to the film. First, hardly anyone swears. Secondly, director James Mangold veers away from showing too much gore, even though the film does have some very violent scenes. It felt a bit contrived at times. Even with an R rating, it doesn't feel like it deserves it. As well, I wondered at one character taking a gutshot, having the bullet removed (one of the film's rare gross out scenes), and be up and riding the next day. No, I really don't think so.

The action scenes are well filmed (a rarity these days in the flashcut editing of the Bourne films and anything by Michael Bay), and the sound is very satisfying--the gunshots have a nice solidity to them. The soundtrack is perhaps a little too cliched, but still evokes the necessary loneliness.

Overall, 3:10 to Yuma is a very good film, and should be on the shelves of any well thinking Western film fan. We have to support films like these if we want this genre to continue, and not just settle itself with Silverado II.

Rating: ****

Monday, January 7, 2008

Why They Write

Why We Write is a series of essays by prominent - and not so prominent - TV and Film writers which hopes to inspire and inform all writers during the strike, and perhaps beyond. So far most are by the "prominent" side of the equation (like Damon Lindelof and Bill Lawrence) but there are a couple of less-well-known contributors around as well. (via WIL WHEATON dot NET: In Exile)

And speaking of writers... perhaps I'll post later about CBC's The Border, which premiered tonight. I mention the show because at least one of its writers has a blog: Denis McGrath's Dead Things ON Sticks is a site I visit from time to time, and he's always got interesting things to say about the job, the product and the industry.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

WGA Starting To Win The War Of Attrition?

First there was David Letterman's Worldwide Pants making a side agreement with the Writers Guild of America that allowed Dave's production company to work with WGA writers on a couple of late night TV shows. Now Deadline Hollywood is reporting that something similar is about to be announced with United Artists. In both cases, what's happening is that the group in question is essentially giving the WGA exactly what the Guild had asked for in the last bargaining agreement, which the AMPTP rejected out of hand at that time. In other words, splinter cells within the AMPTP are starting to break formation and accept the terms that the WGA's been asking for all along. At some point, you have to ask: "Why did the WGA even need to go out on strike?" It's looking more and more like they were asking for very reasonable concessions all along and this has just been about 'principle' with the harsher representatives of the AMPTP.