Friday, February 24, 2006

If, while watching “Syriana,” a film about the global oil industry by writer / director Stephen Gaghan, you begin to feel overwhelmed by the storylines and imagery thrown in front of your eyes, do not despair: It’s just a form of motion sickness. Or maybe information overload?
If you have trouble figuring out who the hero is in this story, don’t feel too bad. Angels and demons can often be seen in the faces of many of the same characters of the film, which attempts to depict the real world, for better or worse. It’s up to you to decide if that’s entertainment. The best minds of our generation are having a tricky time with such topics as the global oil monoculture. Your confusion is no disgrace.
Remember Gaghan’s previous film, “Traffic,” which cast the drug wars on the U.S. border with Mexico in a harsh, yellow-washed daylight? In “Syriana” the light is harsh, too, downright cynical as cyanide, as we have to breathe the fumes of chemical smoke in the Mideast to sense the enormous weight of what’s going on.
The film is oft described as a depiction of wealth and power, as seen through the eyes of a brilliant cast of characters: A CIA spook played by George Clooney; an oil broker played by Matt Damon; and the sensational Jeffrey Wright, who plays a corporate lawyer investigating the merger of two U.S. oil companies with a sense of bottomless mystery and ambiguity.
See it quickly, if you need to, at the Bijou. At deadline, it’s difficult to say how much longer it will be playing locally, even though it has been drawing well. The vast nuances of small- town movie distribution and scheduling (when is the Oscar candidate “Brokeback Mountain” or Quentin Tarantino’s “Hostel” coming to this county?) are worthy of the next Gaghan script.
Based on the tease of the best-selling novel of the same name, “Memoir of a Geisha” would seem to have the kind of R-rated allure that’s getting pretty rare in mainstream cinema these days.
But alas, this film can’t even get that right. With its PG-13 rating, the movie is just a lightweight romance with some drama, but not very much.
In fact, more than anything else, it suffers from a lack of authenticity. The film about the rise of a legendary geisha (Legendary by what standards? Well, that’s R-rated information, sorry) went to an awful lot of trouble to get the audience’s eyes swimming in a beautiful Japanese painting of life in Japan before, during and after World War II.
But if you were expecting something really enduring like the “Joy Luck Club” or “Farewell, My Concubine,” forget it. This one is a princess in which we wait way too long for the frog to turn into a prince. By the end, you’ve learned very little about Japanese culture, and certainly very little about why a geisha was really more than a fancy prostitute.
If it could be compared to anything, it’s more like a soap opera “Dynasty” episode.
It’s too bad it couldn’t live up to its one truly quality scene: The geisha, played by Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang performs a sensual dance on stage before the most powerful men of her day. More of that, the art of how a successfully taught geisha was walking work of art, would have been a welcome change of pace.
Instead of a lesson in grace, it’s a test of viewer patience, an Americanized melodrama in a kimono.