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Review: Syriana

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“Am I just ignorant?” somebody asked as we filed out of the screening room. (Okay, it was me.) “Why is this thing called Syriana?” Turns out only the most dedicated policy wonks will possess that particular bit of foreknowledge: D.C. think tanks use the word to represent the quixotic, arguably foolhardy notion of a Middle East reshaped more to the West’s liking. But it’s easy to imagine writer-director Stephen Gaghan hoping puzzled viewers might rush home to Google the answer, thereby kick-starting a frenzy of research about peak oil, nation-building and covert ops. Intelligent and principled almost to the point of inertia, this well-meaning position paper might as well be called Syrioso.
    If you saw Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, for which Gaghan won the Best Screenplay Oscar five years ago, you’re already familiar with the film’s structural template. Substituting oil for drugs, Syriana painstakingly constructs a near-identical mosaic — flitting among several initially disparate characters and locales, taking its time revealing the hidden connections. Headliners are George Clooney, portly and bearded as a burnt-out C.I.A. lackey sent to take out the recalcitrant new leader of an unnamed but distinctly Saudi-looking country; Matt Damon, at once forthright and glib as an energy analyst not averse to using the accidental death of his son as a bargaining tool; and Jeffrey Wright, tamping down his natural charisma as an attorney performing due diligence on a proposed merger between two shady oil companies. But Gaghan is too conscientious to focus exclusively on American interests, so we also get a storyline involving two migrant Pakistani laborers laid off from U.S. oil giant Connex, who, in their rage and frustration, blah blah blah impending KA-BOOM!
    All of this frantic activity and scrupulously credible Machiavellian interplay is never less than absorbing. Unlike Traffic, however, which had the benefit of Soderbergh’s supple visual imagination and keen dramatic instincts, it’s rarely much more than absorbing, either. Gaghan makes a few token efforts at maintaining human interest — Wright’s recessive lawyer is saddled with an alcoholic father, in a transparent bid for sympathy — but for the most part Syriana remains dry and academic; too often, it feels like Special Alt-Weekly Pullout Section: The Movie. Shame, too, because on paper it’s the kind of complex, provocative, ideologically committed film people justifiably carp that Hollywood no longer knows how to make. We need more movies like this. Just, you know, not like this. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: The Ice Harvest
There’s nothing new about The Ice Harvest. Indeed, in some senses it’s almost painfully unoriginal. A dark Christmas-time comedy about the criminal element featuring Billy Bob Thornton? Check (Bad Santa). A small-town noir about crooks who have trouble getting away with their crimes? Been there, done that (Red Rock West, Blood Simple.) John Cusack as a lovable hood? But of course (Grosse Pointe Blank, The Grifters). But to its credit, the film has very few delusions about itself: Though marketed as a comedy, and bearing the imprimatur of director Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, Groundhog Day), it’s more a crime flick with a darkly comic streak, rather than a straight-up laffer.
    Cusack plays a friendly Wichita mob lawyer who, along with the slightly more edgy Thornton, embezzle $2 million from their mob overlords, then proceed to plan their Yuletide escape with predictably dire consequences. Somewhat unexpectedly, Ramis and screenwriters Richard Russo and Robert Benton (adapting Russo’s novel), keep much of the narrative internalized, even vague: The money has already been stolen before the opening scene; the bad guys don’t appear in the flesh until the final act; and we don’t even know for the first half of the film whether anyone knows our heroes have taken the money. Other filmmakers might have tried to turn the tension up to eleven, but here the result is a curious feeling of unease, and it permeates every scene, like an itch the characters can’t scratch. The Ice Harvest may be your run-of-the-mill small-town crime caper, but in its own uncertain, boozy way, it’s a surprisingly effective one. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: Just Friends
The best Ben Affleck movie Ben Affleck never made, Just Friends gets by on a whole lot of charm and relatively little sense. Fat, sensitive high school senior Chris (Ryan Reynolds, impressively prosthetic) is in love with his best friend Jamie (Amy Smart), a lovable cheerleadery type, but can’t bring himself to tell her. After he’s humiliated at one of her parties, he runs away, vowing revenge. Flash forward many years: The now sleek and handsome Chris is a lascivious L.A. music executive, and as luck would have it, he winds up back home for the holidays, with a hot young bubblegum singer (Anna Faris) in tow. Of course, Chris’s real designs are on Jamie, who has remained her good-natured small-town self all these years. Predictably, although she’s drawn to her now-buff ex-best-friend, she’s put off by his sleazy playa ways.
    Ryan Reynolds — call him a movie star without a vehicle. The man has managed to enter our cultural consciousness without being in a single bona-fide hit. Was it Van Wilder that did it? Blade 3: Trinity? That cameo in Harold & Kumar? That said, his arrival as a headliner is a welcome event, because he might have found the ideal part here. With his WASPy features and pleasantly bland demeanor, Reynolds can seem earnest while hinting at the fratboy within. The guy’s a dick but you’re sort of rooting for him anyway. And that’s exactly what Just Friends needs. Although it will make some feints towards trying to make Chris understand he needs to rediscover his sensitive self, this is still a movie about a hometown horndog who finally gets his. — Bilge Ebiri
Date DVD: King Kong
This is a godawful week for new films on DVD, so get ready for December’s biggest film (in every way) with a new edition of the original King Kong. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 spectacle, with those lovely stop-motion effects by Ray Harryhausen’s predecessor, Willis O’Brien, is a bigger epic than you might remember. You’ll likely be just as giddy over the dinosaur battles and monster-hunting on that exotic island than you are at the more iconic images of Kong marauding through Manhattan. Still, on a date, you should be careful to concentrate on the love story, which is as heartbreaking as ever.
    Dumb blondes should show this film to the big lugs they love — and, perhaps, faint halfway through, to really drive the fantasy home. But this is really a boon for the bear, or goon, or violent punk. If you’re large, inarticulate and hairy, this is the date DVD that could make you look like the gosh-darn sweetheart you surely are. Kong, of course, is the ultimate romantic, a mystic of the all-consuming will-die-for-you variety. He falls for a girl, gently strokes her hair — and then when a dinosaur attacks his lady, he rips its fucking mouth in half and stomps on its dead carcass. It’s not Hugh Grant love, but it’s love nonetheless. Show this to the right date, and afterwards you might be thumping your chest in the bedroom. — Logan Hill

   

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