Syriana

Posted on November 22, 2005 at 4:12 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and language.
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril and violence including torture, suicide, terrorism, and assassination
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 2005
Date Released to DVD: 2006
Amazon.com ASIN: B000F7CMRM

Most movies tell us everything and then they tell it to us again, just to make sure. Some movies, like this one, tell us too little, making us work at it, making us lean forward in our seats, fill in the blanks ourselves and then talk to each other about it on the way home. Like Traffic, with the same writer and director, this is a multi-layered and complex examination of a multi-layered and complex global problem.

If you want a movie that answers all your questions, try “Revenge of the Sith.” If you want a movie that questions all your answers, try this one.


One question it never answers is the meaning of the title. Syriana, according to the film’s website, is a fictional name used by Washington think-tanks to envision a hypothetical (and presumably optimal) reshaping of the Middle East.

The film is assembled like a jigsaw puzzle without a picture of the completed version to guide you and some of the crucial pieces missing. There are little glimpses of many different stories and variations on the theme of oil and of its exploitation and costs — political, commercial, environmental, and international security.


One central character is a CIA operative named Robert Barnes (George Clooney), wise but tired and his bureacratic bosses back in Langley, Virgnia, trying to maintain their viability and deniability. There is an American financial analyst named Bryan (Matt Damon), who lives in Geneva with his wife and two sons, a family so idyllically loving that you know they are in for tragedy. There are two Arab princes competing with each other to be selected by their father to succeed him as monarch, a contest vitally important to the corporate interests, especially two American oil companies trying to get government approval for a merger. It is also of vital importance to national security, and what is best for America may not be best for the citizens of the monarchy or for the immigrants who work for the oil companies there. There is also the Washington triangle of politicians, corporations, and the people paid by the corporations to influence the politicians.


It can be tough to watch, not just because it makes you work hard to understand what is happening in the movie, but because it makes you work hard to understand what is happening in the world. A businessman argues for the indispensability of corruption. Many people pay terrible prices to get what they want, sacrificing partners, family members, and themselves. They may not ask themselves if what they want is worth it, but we must.


The writing and performances are superb, especially Clooney (looking two decades older with an extra 30 pounds), Jeffrey Wright as a Washington lawyer, and Alexander Siddig as a prince. It keeps you off-balance and unsettled and yet settles itself over you with a sickening inevitablity. A story like this needs to be told in a way that will keep you wondering as you drive home — especially if you stop to fill the gas tank along the way.

Parents should know that this is a very intense movie with graphic peril and violence, including torture, suicide, terrorisim, and assassination. Characters are injured and killed. Characters drink, smoke, and use strong language.


Families who see this movie should talk about who is in the best position to address the problems of corruption and abuse in the oil business, and what they themselves can do. They can find more information at sites maintained by the National Commission on Energy Policy, the Department of Energy, and the Congressional Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. And those who want some questions about the plot answered can check the discussion at Wikipedia and add their own comments.

Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Traffic and the miniseries that inspired it, Traffik.

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Drama Movies -- format Thriller

Changing Lanes

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Most thrillers have audiences asking themselves what the characters will do next. This one will have them asking themselves what they might do in this situation, because it is a movie about how close all of us are to abandoning the thin veneer of civilization and breaking all the rules to lash out at each other. This is a harsh thriller about two men whose moral bearings are dislodged by a cataclysmic accident.

Ben Affleck plays Gavin Banek, a successful Manhattan attorney involved in a bitter contest over the control of a charitable foundation. On his way to court, he literally runs into Doyle Gipson, (Samuel L. Jackson), an insurance agent with a desperate plan to keep his estranged wife from leaving town with his children. Gavin, in a hurry, tries to pay the damages up front with a blank check. Doyle, wanting to straighten out his life, wants to swap insurance numbers. Haste and anxiety boil over into anger, and the confrontation leaves Doyle stranded without a ride.

The chance meeting has serious consequences for both characters. Doyle was on his way to family court. He is a recovering alcoholic, who is trying to start a new life. He is on his way to court to show his ex- wife and sons that he is buying a house, so that they will not move to Oregon. The plan is a surprise, to be delivered at the custody hearing he was en route to, when he collided with Gavin.

Gavin reaches court in time but without a crucial document, left at the scene of the accident with Doyle. Events quickly escalate out of control. Without the document, Gavin and his legal partners (one his father-in-law), are vulnerable to charges of fraud; Doyle, because of the accident, arrives late to family court and loses visitation rights with his children.

They confront each other again, but Doyle is too angry about losing his case to give Gavin the file. Gavin lies to the partners about the file to buy time, while Doyle goes into a bar to have a drink. Each blames the other for his troubles and wants revenge. What follows is a battle of wits, with each character striking at the other with all of his available resources, culminating in a second highway crash.

“Changing Lanes” is an explicit allegory about how the flaws of good people can bring them to the brink of murder. Both Gavin and Doyle are appealing, seemingly decent characters. But Gavin lacks the maturity to take full responsibility for his actions, while Doyle’s rage — an even more profound addiction than his alcoholism — overwhelms his good sense.

They both hover at the point of forgiveness, but neither is willing to let go of their self-righteous indignation and make mature choices. The characters along the way each present them with choices, each representing a world view that Gavin and Doyle must adopt or reject. Sidney Pollack (best known as a director) is outstanding as Gavin’s corrupt boss and there are other strong supporting performances by Toni Collette, William Hurt, and Amanda Peet.

Parents should know that this film involves a lot of realistic emotional violence which can be upsetting. A family is separated by the alcoholism of a parent, and there is an extremely harrowing scene of a father being forcibly removed from his son’s school. There is also a later confrontation between the father and mother where the father is told he’ll never see the children again. The physical violence in the film is brief and mild by modern standards, but realistic. There are religious references (the movie takes place on Good Friday) that some families will find awkward or heavy-handed.

Families who see this movie should talk about the characters’ conflicting impulses to forgive and to get revenge. What finally convinces Doyle to give the file back? What did his friend mean when he told Doyle “Alcohol was never really your drug of choice?” Why was Gavin unwilling to go to Texas to do his pro-bono work, and what do you make of his final speech to his father-in law? In a way, this is a movie about the way people do and don’t listen to each other and how that makes us feel. Where do we see that theme most clearly? Why was Gavin able to ignore the reality of his situation? Was the end of the film realistic? Parents will want to discuss safe driving habits with their teens after seeing this film as well.

Families who enjoyed this movie might also want to look at “Panic Room,” which also deals with divorced families and with emotions running out of control.

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Drama Family Issues Thriller

Insomnia

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Detective Dormer (Al Pacino) can’t sleep. He and his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), are LA cops on special assignment to investigate the brutal murder of a teen-age girl in tiny Nightmute Alaska. Dormer may have been brought in for his expertise – eager young Nightmute detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) tells him that she did a case study on one of the crimes he solved when she was in school. But Dormer and Eckhart may have been sent to Alaska to keep them out of the way of an Internal Affairs investigation. They are investigators and subjects of investigation at the same time.

This is just the first of many dualities and counterpoints in a complex, thoughtful thriller directed by Christopher Nolan, who gave us last year’s breakthrough hit about an amnesiac searching for his wife’s killer, Memento. Like that movie, “Insomnia” has an impaired main character. We cannot always trust what we see through his eyes.

Neither can he. Shortly after arriving in Nightmute, he asks to be taken to the local high school so that he can interview the dead girl’s boyfriend. The local detectives glance at each other and explain that it is 10 o’clock. Dormer looks out the window and says, “So what?” But it is 10 PM in a time of year when it is light all night long. Images of light and darkness haunt Dormer as he tries to escape the light so he can get some sleep and as he is forced to confront a darkness within himself that draws him both to the killers and to their eradication. It turns out that he and the killer will have a connection that, like the midnight sun, will keep him awake.

Nolan uses everything — the huge frozen vistas, the disorientation of perpetual sunlight, the fog that surrounds their first glimpse of the killer, the names (Dormer is “to sleep” in French, Ellie Burr is a detective whose dedication is a constant irritant). Dormer’s lack of sleep both deconstructs and constructs him. He enters a surreal state in which he is both more and less able to rely on his judgment.

Pacino, Swank, Donovan, and Maura Tierney as a sympathetic hotel proprietor are all first-rate. The movie’s weakest point is Robin Williams in the under-written role of the killer.

Parents should know that the movie has brief but grisly violence, a nude corpse, some creepy sound effects, and some very strong language. There are tense scenes and characters are shot and killed. Characters drink and smoke.

Families who see this movie should talk about the moral compromises Dormer makes and the ways in which people have to balance the ends and the means. What will Ellie do next? Why? Why is the town named “Nightmute?” What do you think about the girl who was killed?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy No Way to Treat a Lady, Strangers on a Train and Memento.

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Crime Drama Thriller

Panic Room

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

This thriller, in the claustrophobic mode of “Rear Window”, finds Meg (Jodie Foster), a recent divorcee, and her combative daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart), trapped in the secret vault/bomb shelter/safe room set up by their apartment’s previous owner, a paranoid millionaire with a squabbling family. The least favorite cousin, Junior (Jared Leto), has broken into the apartment with the help of security expert Burnham (Forest Whitaker) and tag-along psycho Raoul (Dwight Yoakam). The bad guys want in to the vault, where the old millionaire hid his millions. The girls just want to get out, but the protected phone line inside the room hasn’t been activated yet (they just moved in).

This is not a movie about insight into the human condition or subtle, complex characters. This is just a movie about scaring the heck out of you, and it does that very expertly.

Jodie Foster’s inner mama tiger takes over and escalates as the burglars take more and more drastic steps to try and enter the impregnable vault, and Kristen Stewart moves from being a tough, sullen teen to a tough, sullen, wily teen. On the outside, Forest Whitaker gets to play the good bad guy, while Mr. Leto and Mr. Yoakam act progressively more evil.

For a story which should have been a claustrophobic battle of wits, too often it’s simply a battle of violence, although there are some riveting action sequences. And while the family dynamics are underdeveloped, the film does show how divorced parents and their children can remain a family even after separation.

Parents should know that the movie has extreme suspense and some graphic violence. A child is in peril. Characters use strong language.

Families who see this movie should discuss what the characters do to escalate the level of violence, and how acting from emotions as opposed to reason can aggravate problems, no matter how satisfying it may seem at the time. Divorced families will be especially interested in Sarah’s father, who has in no way abandoned his daughter.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the director’s other movies (very mature material), “Seven” and “Fight Club.”

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Action/Adventure Drama Family Issues Thriller

The Maltese Falcon

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is a private detective. A woman who says her name is Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) comes to see him, asking for help in finding her sister. Sam sends his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to follow her when she meets Floyd Thursby, the man she thinks her sister is with, and both Archer and Thursby are killed. It turns out that the woman has given him a false name. She is really Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and it turns out it is not her sister she is seeking, but a small, jeweled statue of a falcon, and she is mixed up with some people who will do anything to get it.

One of those people is Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), who comes to see Sam to insist — with a gun — that he be allowed to search Sam’s office to see if it is there. Sam is not at all intimidated by Joel, but allows him to search. Also after the statue is Mr. Gutman, “the fat man” (Sidney Greenstreet), with his “gunsel,” Wilmer. They alternately threaten and attempt to bribe Sam, while Brigid appeals to his protective nature and his heart. But Sam turns them all over to the police, including Brigid, whom he loves.

Discussion: One of the most interesting aspects of this classic movie is the way that Sam Spade thinks though the moral dilemmas. When he is deciding whether to tell the police about Brigid, he is very explicit about weighing every aspect of his choices. It is not an easy decision for him; he has no moral absolutes. On one hand, he loves her, and he did not think much of his partner. On the other, he does not trust her, he does not think she trusts him, and he knows that they could not go on together, each waiting to betray or be betrayed. And he has some pride; he says that when your partner is killed, you are supposed to “do something.” While it may be good for business not to appear too ethical, it is bad for business to allow a partner in a detective firm to get killed without responding. If he turns her over to the police, he loses her. But if he does not, he loses a part of himself, his own kind of integrity.

When this movie was made, moviegoers were used to cool, debonair detectives (like Philo Vance and Nick Charles, both played by William Powell), a sort of cross between Sherlock Holmes and Fred Astaire. But Sam Spade, created by Dashiell Hammett based on his experiences as a detective, was a modern day version of the cowboy, a loner with his own sense of honor.

This was the first movie directed by John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay, but he was already a master. Watch the two scenes where Sam goes to talk to Gutman, and see how the camera angles in the first scene lead the viewer to suspect that Sam’s drink is spiked (it isn’t), and then how different angles are used in the second one to make the viewer confident that it won’t be (it is).

Questions for Kids:

· What does Sam mean when he says the statue is “the stuff dreams are made of”?

· Where is Sam faced with moral conflicts? How does he resolve them? What are his reasons?

Connections: Bogart appeared as a similarly tough detective, Philip Marlowe, in “The Big Sleep,” based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. The books by Hammett and Raymond Chandler are well worth reading. Note the director’s father, Walter Huston, in an uncredited brief appearance as Captain Jacobi. Jerome Cowan, who appears briefly as Miles Archer, plays the prosecuting attorney who tries to prove that Kris Kringle is not Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street.”

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Based on a book Classic Crime Thriller
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