Monday means wicked tricks!

*So how about living the past with


Seven Soldiers - Bulleteer #2 (of 4)

Iron Man: The Inevitable #1 (of 6)

Jason X Special #1 (of 1), A Nightmare on Elm Street: Paranoid #1 (of 3)

Don't let the love end.

*But nothing can possibly end


oh jeez, wait. No comics until Thursday? Hrm.

*Spotted in a large chain bookstore today: what I believe is the first product of W.W. Norton’s hardcover Will Eisner reprint project, The Contract With God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue. Sort of a deluxe cousin to DC’s recent softcover release of The Best of The Spirit, it’s a big fat 544-page omnibus, collecting A Contract With God, A Life Force, and Dropsie Avenue for $29.95. Looks like a really lovely production, though I can’t say that much of Eisner’s ‘graphic novel’ period output holds a lot of appeal to me beyond historical interest. Enthusiasts ought to keep their eyes peeled. Apropos of nothing, that same bookstore, an unusually comics-friendly location from what I’ve seen, also carried the first copy of the City of Glass comics adaptation that I’ve ever seen in a bookstore.

*Yeah, so I was going to talk more about King Kong, and then I realized that the entire movie had pretty much fled my system; I look back on that one paragraph I wrote the other day, and I really do think it’s pretty sufficient - the rest of it just passes right through me, leaving only a watery memory of about twelve thousand shots of Naomi Watts climbing ladders in the last fifteen minutes. Hm, maybe that’s enough of a review itself.

Anyway, since we’re on the topic:


I have to start out by concurring with Rose and Abhay (scroll down) on one matter; the alleged daunting complexity of this film’s plot has been quite grossly overstated by various commentators (for the purposes of illustration, allow me to present the Entertainment Weekly-provided capsule summary of Lisa Schwarzbaum’s review: “A dense, proudly complicated drama of geopolitical intrigue that has a lot of big, important things to say about big, important things and doesn’t care whether audiences understand what’s being said.”). Frankly, I thought there was a little bit of hand-holding at work - right off the top of my head I can recall one major plot point, the freezing of the assets, that characters actually step into another room to explain for us all, even highlighting how such a situation might affect the other players in the story. Fortunately, for the most part the exposition is handled with more restraint; the audience is trusted to be able to retain information and remember characters, and sometimes even draw the connections between them, though the plot dutifully strings most things up by the end. All the better to offer some sense of dramatic finality, I suppose, though I wouldn’t have minded if this multi-faceted subject matter - the all-consuming grip of oil - had produced far more loose ends, as the nature of the beast supports it. Still, this is drama, and the old ‘if you see a gun in Act 1...’ adage most certain comes into play, despite the socioeconomic hydra presiding over it all.

And yet - there’s also that occasional odd moment where the dialogue tumbles into obviousness, with one lawyer spitting out something along the lines of ‘we’ll be ok as long as there’s conflict in the middle east, ha ha!,’ or another character who delivers a top-of-his-lungs speech in favor of corporate corruption; but then, that’s not really overexplaining, it’s simplistic political grandstanding, positioned solely to elicit triumphant jeers and vigorous fist pumping from the true believers in the audience, and that’ll prove to be troublesome later on, a much worse problem than opacity of story.

I mention ‘action’ above in reference to the plot; let me indicate that I was actually rather surprised by how much of a ‘suspense’ film this thing tried to be. Why, there’s explosions and nail-biting break-ins and races against time set to jumpy music and everything, and it’s actually fairly good at it. I greatly appreciated the film’s presentational modesty, its sights and sounds largely understated, as if writer/director Stephen Gaghan just happened to have been in the area with a camera as all of these authentic-feeling events were unfolding. The score does slide into the occasional treacly tinkling of piano keys, yes, but it only provides momentary distraction, which is important - while far from overbearing in its inherent difficulty, this is the sort of story you need to pay attention to, and flashy tricks could only act as distancing tools in such an environment, to no good end.

But the film also largely fills a role I’d more expected: panoramic tour of its subject matter, with dozens of characters running around the globe, and a few plucked out for intensive study. The quintet of personages that attain such relative primacy include (in descending order of interest): George Cloony as a grizzled (maybe even hard-boiled!) veteran CIA operative, Alexander Siddig as the Prince of an unnamed oil-rich nation that’s just handy a cherry energy to China, Mazhar Munir as an impoverished Pakistani teen who falls in with extremist religious forces, Matt Damon as a vaguely idealistic energy trader who half-voluntarily becomes embroiled in an increasingly volatile international situation, and Jeffrey Wright as a smart (if seemingly milquetoast) lawyer who’s working on the high-powered merger of a pair of US oil giants. All of these characters are caught in the grip of world oil, and all of them are also provided with families, all of which are ultimately tossed to the side while the concerns of oil dominate. Some, like Cloony and Wright, have already given it up, and can only sink deeper. The rest will drown with them, unless they can wake themselves.

Indeed, the breakdown of familial understanding (and perhaps human tenderness itself) in the face of all-encompassing economic power is the film’s primary theme to my mind, and the force that joins all of these disparate people. Actually, it’s pretty much the only interesting thing going for Damon’s underwritten character, his family quite directly broken down by business concerns (and some clumsy foreshadowing, though everyone’s hesitation around water from that point on is subtly handled and satisfying - contrast the recurring visions of life-giving water with the omnipotence of fire-bringing oil as twin ties that bind Damon and Siddig); he otherwise just stands around and delivers inspiring factual data, providing a nominal western presence without the character baggage of big business or the CIA. It’s also the only means of crawling inside Wright’s cipher of an attorney, who otherwise acts only as a vessel to convey information about corporate shenanigans, growing subtly more jaded as time passes by (or maybe gradually revealing his true nature); too bad the non-story with Wright’s father goes absolutely nowhere, merely making a gesture toward providing the character with a non-work (and non-plot facilitation) existence.

More successful is Siddig, who provides the film’s best performance, rather arrogant and standoffish, but crackling with some genuine fire; he wants to make money, and he’s a good capitalist, and he believes in the core values of democracy and the free market. It is the film’s most potent irony that the satiric Committee to Liberate Iran facilitates events that ultimately both prevents democracy from gaining a stronger foothold in an portion of Middle East, and retards the area’s future economic viability. But there’s that human element too, with the frailty of age and the temptations of security conspiring to undo progress and once again shatter the family. And then there’s Cloony, who appears to be inhabiting a somewhat different movie than everyone else (probably a more immediately entertaining one), which is fitting since he lives in a different world, one that’s sanded away his sense of politics but not his analytical acumen; he can’t grasp the big picture any more completely than anyone else, but he’s at least experienced enough to know he’s a pawn, and he revels in his duties. But he’s also doggedly self-preserving, and will broker no betrayal - that his motives in his final scenes are left obscured is a boon to his character, and the movie as a whole. He needs to save himself, but how? How?

Rejection of the system is a possibility, one perhaps suggested in the film’s final moments; but then, we’re confronted by Munir’s entirely detached youth, who cannot escape the ripples of the market. This leads him into violent extremism, and maybe takes the film into a difficult place too. Clearly Gaghan isn’t being modest with his politics throughout the film - just check out the framing on those hootin’ hollerin’ oil men at their huntin’ retreat, suddenly decidedly unnatural. Goony, grinning faces everywhere, lit by ominously glowing fire, exotic animals hunted for idle pleasure; I was surprised not to see horns sprout from Chris Cooper’s head as he licks his chops over delicious foreign deposits. Meanwhile, terrorism gets the soft touch, or so it seems.

I’m willing give Gaghan some credit here: presumably, the ‘recruitment’ scenes are made pleasing and gentle to emphasize the appeal that such experiences might have to otherwise wayward, hungry youths. Frankly, the whole setup reminded me of the seminary retreats they’d take all the Catholic school kids like me out on every so often; the playing around, the vigorous laughter of authority at youthful games and spiritual doubt, much of it meant to make us consider a life in the priesthood. Similar procedures are seen here, to more violent ends, but the familiarity the film raises was powerful for me. In addition, I presume that Gaghan meant to extend his trust in the audience far enough to leave the prospect of a suicide bombing sitting as a self-evident negative. Munir, after all, is asked to literally destroy his life, and we’re meant to soak in the poignance of a life snuffed. But these two approaches combine to create an awfully ‘softball’ approach to the film’s terrorism focus, and clashes with Gaghan’s more strident handling of the film’s other political content. Indeed, after all the dirty work and backstabbing and deaths, this line of staging makes the finale of Munir’s subplot take on a perverse, heroic edge; one can almost hear some Rage Against the Machine blaring on the soundtrack as acts of murderous destruction are considered, and this undercuts the film’s effectiveness at a crucial point, causing one otherwise sympathetic audience member to scratch his head and blink a few times and wonder if maybe the film’s stretching for comprehensiveness is leading to sadly shallow insights.

It even sours the final voice-over, delivered by Munir, and its summary of the film’s themes; it all suddenly seems preachy and wayward. It’s also decidedly nihilistic, unless you’re willing to subscribe to the possibility that people can divorce themselves from this all-seeing force, apparently all-destroying force, despite the film’s nonstop evidence to the contrary. Perhaps we can only hope for peace in the next world? Well shit, Stephen, does it matter how we get there then? Syriana isn’t a difficult movie to understand, and also not a difficult one to admire on some level. But liking it, without strong reservations? That may well be the tough part.