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Directed by Stephen Gaghan.
Written by Stephen Gaghan.
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, and Mazhar Munir.
Release Year:  2005
Review Date:  12/5/05


I had a freebie to go check out "Syriana" tonight, in advance of its opening this Friday nationwide.  I have been very excited about this film for a while, because the film's writer/director, Stephen Gaghan, wrote "Traffic" a few years back, a film that I loved and has a similar everything-is-connected storyline to what looked to be a take on the world's oil industry in the new film.

Here's what I do know about "Syriana" after my buddy Ross and I checked out the freebie--I don't know what the fuck I just saw.

There's a few reasons for that.  In trying to keep up with a branching storyline that features a lawyer protecting Big Oil (Jeffrey Wright), two kids in Tehran that are drafted into a suicide cell, an energy analyst (Matt Damon) with ties to one of the two men that could become Iran's next Emir (essentially a king, for all intents & purposes) and a CIA agent (George Clooney) that has a job to take care of in Beirut, I knew that 30 minutes into the movie I had no idea what was happening, who was getting set up, why people were getting set up, or where any of the storylines were going.

About an hour through, I was sure that I was never going to figure out just what the hell was going on, so I decided to ride it out...but then I found myself getting lost over who was who, why certain characters seemed to be answering to no one (even though they possessed no real power), and why everyone was either selling their bosses out or getting sold down the river themselves.  This made me even more frustrated.

Here's what it is about "Syriana" that will put you on the fence:  it feels like it is the most important movie you have ever seen while you are watching it, but for some strange reason, it takes a boatload of Washington-speak and legal mumbo-jumbo (not to mention a handle on extensive amounts of Arabic and Farsi and French and Chinese and--oh yeah!--English) to really get it.  As such, you will feel a little empty after you watch it, because you'll want to be able to talk about it afterwards and then you'll realize you don't have any idea what just happened.

But, in feeling like an important film, Gaghan (who actually hasn't done much since "Traffic", writing the dog "The Alamo" and a couple of other low-rent types) does create a stirring atmosphere, one that mixes the political angle of being in bed with the major oil companies in the U.S. & abroad with having the dramatic angle of the CIA thread, with Clooney doing his best to look important and working on a "mission" of some unspoken end.  Giving us the look at what kind of influence financial analysts have on the game was a nice touch (although strange, given that Damon's character ends up being the sole rep for what should be a very large deal for his firm); the only storyline that could have been dumped features the lawyer and his alcoholic father, which seems to have no place in the rest of the film.  Regardless, as a whole, "Syriana" just feels like it should be groundbreaking, even if it isn't, but Gaghan really does paint a cool picture of a world, no matter how inaccessible it might be to commoners like myself.

The performances are excellent; even Amanda Peet (normally credited as "The Whore", "The Skank", or "The Drug-Addled Girlfriend") actually ain't bad this go-round.  Certainly, steady cameo work from the likes of Chris Cooper or Christopher Plummer or Tim Blake Nelson never hurts, but our three main leads and Mazhar Munir (playing the older son of the outgoing Emir) are all excellent in their extended screen time.  And, the guy running that torture sequence was effective as well, wasn't he??

The globetrotting production, featuring work done in the U.S. (mostly D.C.-area locations), Morocco and the U.A.E., is cool to watch, thanks to brilliant cinematography by Robert Elswit, who worked on Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck" earlier this year.  This also helps you forget that you have no idea what's going on during the film.  Aesthetically, "Syriana" is just a nice ride, very engaging, edgy, artsy at times.

And, it was nice to see something of quality for free.  "Syriana" is pretty good, but mostly it's because I'm assuming that Gaghan has given me a product that was well-thought out even if it speaks to a socioeconomic strata that most of us don't play in.  I'll bet those Washington types will love it!!

Rating:  $9.50 Show


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09