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.
Mistake number one may be the title. There may be times in history when it is possible to have an appealing lead character whose primary interest in life is women, but this doesn’t seem to be it.
For centuries, people have been fascinated by Casanova, an 18th century adventurer who made and lost fortunes, escaped from prison, worked as a cleric and a spy, and whose legendary romances with hundreds of woman, as detailed in his autobiography, have made his name a label (both scornful and admiring) for generations of lotharios. His legend has inspired a number of films going back to a 1918 silent version, including portrayals by Donald Sutherland (in Il Casanova di Federico Fellini and by Richard Chamberlain in Casanova — and even impersonated by Bob Hope in Casanova’s Big Night).
In this film, Casanova’s womanizing is attributed to youthful high spirits and a supposedly endearing inability to turn down any woman who is enraptured by his charms — meaning any woman. Director Lasse Hallstrom recognizes that contemporary audiences will not have much patience with this, so he hedges his bets, making his Casanova (Heath Ledger) just a hopeless romantic ready to become completely faithful when he meets the right woman. Having abandoned the real-life Casanova’s most defining characteristic, Hallstrom and Ledger might have been better off creating a completely fictional character.
The fundamental disconnect in the personality of the movie’s hero runs straight into a collision with the movie’s tone. It tries to be a mildly post-modern version of a very traditional door-slamming farce, with a headache-inducing mish-mash of false identities and near-misses, all of which seem more of a distraction than an entertainment. Even the pleasures of on-location scenery in Venice are diminished by staging so artificial it might as well be a stage set.
Then there is mistake number two — an idea which must have seemed daring in a story conference — casting the ravishing Sienna Miller as Francesca Bruni, the spirited feminist heroine (so far, so good) but doing its best to make her look plain so we would appreciate how much Casanova loves her for her mind and spirit. Miller is still anything but ordinary, but for this kind of high-gloss romp, she there should have been no stinting on the glamour.
For the same reason, despite its subject matter, this might also have worked better as a PG-13. The sexual material in the film is not as explicit as many R-rated films, but given the choices of scenes, it is explicit enough to detract from the light-hearted and romantic tone the film is trying for.
There are moments, though, when it does achieve that light-hearted and romantic tone, and it rises like the hot-air balloon Casanova and Francesca take for a ride. Oliver Platt is sweetly silly as a clueless but open-hearted suitor, Jeremy Irons purples it up as a draconian Inquisitor, and Lena Olin contributes one of the movie’s most genuinely romantic moments as a woman who is surprised to find herself capable of being smitten. And it has swordfights and scenery and smooches. It isn’t a very good movie and it makes some fatally poor choices, but audiences in search of a cinematic bon bon may find its failures forgiveable.
Parents should know that this is the highly fictionalized story of one of the most notorious womanizers in history. While it is a light-hearted portrayal, the movie is about promescuity and what might in a less silly movie be called debauchery. The movie includes frequent sexual references and situations, some strong language, and drinking.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Casanova felt differently about Francesca than he did about the other women he had met.
When thinking about a Tony- and Pulitzer-prize winning musical based on an opera, an almost-entirely-sung story about homeless artists, some of them drug addicts, some infected with the AIDS virus, the director of Mrs. Doubtfire is not the first thought that comes to mind, but he turns out to be a wise choice.
Director Chris Columbus is not known for being edgy. But he is known for respecting the material and the performers and for bringing solid, if uninspired, journeyman skills — like attention to detail — to productions designed around reliably marketable themes (romantic comedies, heartwarming family stories) and reliably marketable big Hollywood stars (Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon in Stepmom, Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire), and for taking on the first two Harry Potter movies and not messing them up. He is safe.
That may seem like an odd choice for “Rent,” not just a critically acclaimed Broadway musical, not just an all-but perpetually-playing theatrical production around the world, but a genuine cult, with Rent-heads camping out overnight to get the limited low-price tickets set aside for each performance, people who have been to see dozens of productions. But when you consider the challenges faced by those who wanted to adapt this phenomenon for film, the choice of Columbus makes sense — and so does the result.
Adapting any play for screen is always tricky. What works on stage does not necessarily work in a movie. Plays are more about the words. But movies, where so much is communicated with the slightest motion of an eyebrow, feel weighed down and stagey if they seem too talky. Furthermore, the play “Rent” is very much an artifact of its era. Do we try to update it a decade, adding cell phones, digital video cameras, and internet access? AIDS is neither the shock nor the death sentence it was in 1989. Do we keep it as a time capsule? Its inspiration, La Boheme, still works, even though not many people die of tuberculosis anymore.
But, and I know I am risking a flood of email here, “Rent” is also an artifact of another era, the subjective era of transition into adulthood. That made it a totem for young audiences. The underlying theme is a fantasy for 15-year olds, who think it is all so simple and romantic to build your life on the principle of “epater le bourgeois” (shock the middle class).
Its starkness has a lot of appeal to the us/them tendencies of adolescents. It suggests that the only legitmate and authentic option is to live in poverty in the name of artistic integrity. And there is even more appeal in the idea of leaving your family of origin to create one of your own with your friends, a happily multi-ethnic, pan-sexual alliance of ever-merry, ever-devoted, ever-honest comrades in arms who know that all that matters is “la vie boheme.”
They sing an anthem: “To loving tension, no pension/To more than one dimension/To starving for attention/Hating convention, hating pretension/Not to mention of course/Hating dear old mom and dad/To riding your bike/Midday past the three- piece suits/To fruits to no absolutes/To Absolut/to choice/To the Village Voice/To any passing fad/To being an us-for once-, instead of a them….”
What could be more heavenly? To live in a picturesque little artistic hovel with artists who understand that art and love and fun are all that matter. At its best, it taps into the 15-year-old longings we all keep inside.
The power of the music and the characters and the live performance somehow make the weakness of those themes work, especially in the context of the show’s mythic backstory. The man who wrote it, Jonathan Larson, who was waiting tables just months before the show opened, died suddenly just after the final rehearsal, never knowing that his first play would become a sensation. But how can you translate that to film without throwing it all out of balance?
Furthermore, the conventional wisdom in Hollywood, even after the success of Chicago is that the “traditional” musical is no longer possible, that any movie with songs has to have a “device” like the stagey artificiality of Moulin Rouge or the “it’s all in her mind” approach of Chicago. Is it possible in the 21st century for us to accept the idea of a bunch of squatters dancing and singing through subways, abandoned buildings, AIDS support groups, and elegant engagement parties?
Enter the safe Christopher Columbus who has just successfully shepherded another property with fanatically protective fans, the first two Harry Potter films. And he turns out to be just the right sensibility for this material.
How can it broaden its appeal from that specific moment? The music is strong and sustainable. The characters are vivid and (mostly) endearing. The first good decision Columbus made was to keep as much of the original Broadway cast as possible. Six of the original eight leads appear. Most Hollywood films have no rehearsal time and actors often meet each other just before the scene begins. These actors worked together over a long period of time, performing the show together over a very successful run. Their complete comfort with their characters and command of the material adds immeasurably to the depth and richness of the performances. And the fact that they are not played by over-familiar Teen People cover icon pop stars (reportedly, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera were considered for parts in the movie) helps us to believe in the performers as unknowns living in poverty.
The story centers around roommates Roger (Adam Pascal), an AIDS-infected songwriter still mourning the death of his girlfriend, and Mark (Anthony Rapp), a documentary film-maker and refugee from the suburbs, still mourning the loss of his girlfriend — to her new girlfriend. His former girlfriend is Maureen (Irina Menzel), an outspoken performance artist, and her new love is Joanne (Tracie Thoms), a lawyer from a wealthy family.
Roger and Mark have a former roommate, Benny (Taye Diggs), now married to a wealthy girl. He is working for his father-in-law, planning a rennovation of the neighborhood. On Christmas Eve 1989 he offers his friends free rent if they will stop Maureen’s performance art protest of the development. A downstairs neighbor named Mimi (Rosario Dawson) comes up looking for a light for her candle. And another friend, Collins (Jessie L. Martin), a renegade professor, comes by with the flamboyant but sweet-natured cross-dresser Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), who rescued him after a mugging and later brings him to an AIDS support group, and then becomes his lover.
We go through a year with these characters (or, as they put it, 525,600 minutes) as they struggle with issues of health, romance, money (always needing that “rent”), and art. Will Maureen and Joanne stay together? (A highlight of the movie is a sensational angry duet in the middle of an elegant engagement party given by Joanne’s parents.) Will Roger risk loving again? Will Mark go to work for a sleazy tabloid television show (the Faustian offer is made in a funny cameo by Sarah Silverman of Jesus is Magic). Will Collins give up New York for the stark beauty of Santa Fe?
Columbus wisely begins with the cast standing on a stage singing one of the show’s key songs, acknowledging the inherent artificiality, and then he just asks us to accept that we are entering a place in New York where people just break into song all the time, and we do.
The musical numbers are capably, if not especially imaginatively staged (with the exception of Angel’s introductory number, which has some distracting editing), and the structural pruning and smoothing Columbus and screenwriter Steve Chbosky have done is judicious and unobtrusive.
The show-stoppers deliver, especially “La Vie Boheme,” with the cast dancing on a restaurant tabletop. Pascal sometimes seems to have wandered in from a 1970’s dinner theater production of Jesus Christ Superstar and Tony winner Heredia gives us more of Angel’s sweetness than his sass, but Menzel and Martin are jump-off-the-screen superstars, fiery, gutsy, and touching. Dawson and Thoms, the two additions to the cast, are both magnificent, matching the old-timers every step of the way. As they play the two outsiders to the close-knit community, their energy works well to complement the members of the original cast who play Roger, Mark, and their friends, and by the end of the movie, we feel that we, too, are a part of this family, or wish we were.
Parents should know that this movie has very strong material for a PG-13, including gay, straight, and bi-sexual characters, many of whom have AIDS and are or have been drug addicts. Characters use strong language, drink, and abuse drugs. A character is mugged and injured. A dog is killed (off-camera) and there is a very sad death. Parents who have concern about the suitability of this film for teenagers should see it before deciding whether it is appropriate, and, if they do decide to permit middle or high schoolers to see it, they should be prepared to discuss it with them afterward.
Families who see this movie should talk about the moral choices faced by Mark, Benny, Collins, and Maureen, and how they decided what their priorities and options were. How did Angel see his choices differently, and why? They should read the lyrics of “La Vie Boheme” and see how many of the references they can identify. They should also read and talk about this essay by Dave Eggars about what it means (and does not mean) to “sell out.”
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Chicago and Hair. They will also enjoy seeing a live or video production of the opera that inspired this musical, Puccini’s gorgeous La Boheme (just as in “Rent,” the ailing Mimi comes upstairs to get a light for her candle). The version by Baz Lurhmann, director of Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom is very striking. Harvard Law Professor Joe Singer’s thoughtful comparison of the movie and stage versions of the show is very worthwhile and the DVD version has some fascinating (and heartbreaking) background footage.
Characters drink and get drunk, drive while drinking, and mix pills and alcohol
Frequent explicit violence, including guns and knives, characters injured, tortured, and murdered
Date Released to Theaters:
This is a rancid lump of coal in the toe of the Christmas stocking of the holiday movie season. Perhaps inspired by the unexpected success of last year’s anti-feel-good Bad Santa, this has that movie’s star, Billy Bob Thornton, as a pornographer named Vic who conspires with Charlie (John Cusack), a mob lawyer, to steal $2 million from mob boss Bill Gerard (Randy Quaid) on Christmas Eve. Now the trick is getting out of town without killing themselves on the icy roads or killing each other out of suspicion, frustration, or greed. There is also a strip joint manager named Renata (Gladiator’s Connie Nielson), lit like a 1940’s film noir femme fatale, and a subplot about an incriminating photo of a local politician engaged in some hanky panky with a bored-looking stripper, as well as Charlie’s perpetually drunk friend (Oliver Platt).
Not exactly Tiny Tim saying “God bless us everyone” or Santa wishing “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night,” is it?
There’s nasty-fun and there’s nasty-nasty, and then there’s nasty-just-plain-depressing, and this ugly mess straddles the second two categories. We may all need some relief from the relentless cheeriness of the holiday season, and there is some cathartic liberation in seeing characters who are so unabashedly unconstrained by societal norms. Because there are some understated wisecracks and Christmas carol classics (including the one from Alvin and the Chipmunks) on the soundtrack, this is supposed to be clever and meta and ironic. But it isn’t.
It is dumb and micro and moronic. Thornton, Cusack, Nielson, and Platt do their best and there are some darkly comic moments, but ultimately it is as stale and unappetizing as last year’s fruitcake.
Parents should know that this is a movie that bases its humor on its vile soullessness, which is intended to be wickedly charming. This means that the movie’s “good guys” and its bad guys are crooks and killers. Everyone uses very strong, crude, and nasty language and everyone engages in very strong, crude, and nasty behavior. Characters smoke and drink, get drunk, drink and drive, and mix alcohol and pills. They lie, cheat, steal, torture, and kill each other.
Families who see this movie should talk about whether it is all right to steal from crooks. If you become a crook, does that make you less willing to trust others? If you become a crook, does that make it harder to find trustworthy people to work with? They might also like to talk about how this story echoes some of the themes portrayed less darkly in the books and films by the same author, Empire Falls (which echoes the “Witchita Falls” theme of this movie) and Nobody’s Fool.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy three other crooks-at-Christmas movies, The Ref, the original We’re No Angels (remade with Robert DeNiro and Sean Penn in 1989), and Trapped in Paradise.
Tense and scary emotional scenes, child beaten, wartime violence
A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
Movies can show us visions of other worlds, exotic vistas, customs, fashions, rules. And they can show us visions of ourselves, with our longings, our fears, our dreams, the and the way love can include them all. “Memoirs of a Geisha” does both. It’s a story of a time and place whose mysteries have kept it hidden but whose secrets turn out to be our own — the need for love, the courage to survive, the profound effects of cruelty and of kindness, the dream that is so deep inside that we barely breathe when we think of it.
Sold by their father, Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and her sister are taken with no warning from their small fishing village to the city of Kyoto. At the doorway of a geisha house, Chiyo is grudingly accepted but her sister is not. Chiyo will later find that she has been taken to a house of prostitution. Geishas are not prostitutes — the word means “artist.” The most successful geisha’s command huge sums for their ability to entertain and to charm. Their appeal in part is in what they do not reveal, what they hold back. While they are not chaste — they begin their careers by having their virginity auctioned off to the highest bidder — they are not afterward expected to provide sexual favors. It is this idea of being elusive but not unobtainable (or at least not unobtained) that is a part of their attraction and their power.
Chiyo is treated cruelly and beaten. She and her sister plan an escape, but she is unable to be at the meeting place. After that, the closest thing she has to a friend is fellow slave Pumpkin. The owner of the house is the chain-smoking O-Kami, who cares only about survival, and that means money. The most successful geisha in Kyoto, Hatsumomo (Gong Li) lives in their house and she is threatened by Chiyo.
Two tranforming events occur. One day, Chiyo meets a man who buys her a flavored ice and gives her his handkerchief. He is the Chairman (Ken Wantanabe). He becomes her hero. For the first time she has a dream — she wants to be his geisha. She does not receive the proper training until Hatsumomo’s rival Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) takes her on. Whether it is kindness, ambition, or just a strategy to further infuriate Hatsumomo — or a combination of the three, Mameha devotes herself to her pupil. In a very short time she teaches Chiyo, now renamed Sayuri (and played by Ziyi Zhang) all of the arts and artifices of being a geisha. There are thousands of exquisitely intricate rules governing everything from the position of the hand in pouring tea to the position of the fan in performing a dance to the ability to cast a glance so devastating it can knock a man off his bicycle.
Sayuri is soon a sucess, and it requires even more diplomacy and strategy to maintain her position as her competitors use manipulation and deceit to try to discredit her. She again meets the Chairman and is admired by his close friend and colleague. Then the war comes, and when it is over, her geisha skills again provide opportunity and risk.
Sayuri is told that she has a lot of water in her, while her sister is wood. “Water flows from place to place quickly and always finds a crack to spill through. Wood, on the other hand, holds fast to the earth.” Sayuri must be as adaptable as water, but she must hold fast to the earth, too.
The outlines of the story may seem soapy, but the details of the place, time, and culture used to tell the story elevate it to a meaningful and moving saga of identity, longing, and resiliance, as exquisitely presented as a silk kimono.
Parents should know that this movie is about women who are not prostitutes but who do sell their companionship in a manner that can involve sexual favors. Violence includes beating a child and some wartime scenes. Characters drink (one drinks to excess) and smoke. Some audience members may be upset by scenes of children being taken from their parents and sold into what is essentially a form of slavery.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way one small act of kindness can transform a person’s life. What acts of kindness have been important to you? What acts of kindness can you perform? Why did the culture of the geisha become so important in that society? They might also want to talk about the controversial decision to cast Chinese actresses in this very Japanese story — a story, by the way, written by an author who was not a geisha, not Japanese, and not a woman. When can — and when can’t — one person truly understand the experience and perspectives of another culture?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Last Emperor. They might also enjoy a comedy about an American woman played by Shirley MacLaine who disguises herself as a geisha called My Geisha and the dated but still moving Oscar-winner Sayonara, about a soldier’s love affair with a Japanese actress. And they should read the award-winning novel by Arthur Golden.