Syriana an Oil Slick, Narnia a Stolid Sunday-School Epic
By Fernando F. Croce

Syriana comes on like the last word on geopolitics, but, like so much "relevant" claptrap hitting screens this year (The Constant Gardener, Jarhead, et al.), it's all hot air, or tepid air, rather, for Stephen Gaghan's cocktail of blood and oil even lacks the pulse to be outraged. George Clooney, bearded and ursine, is first spotted in a rap-scored soiree in Tehran before consuming an arms deals (made-in-U.S.A. missiles) and then walking away as a fireball forms behind him. The camera is jiggly, riffle with the pseudo-Battle of Algiers newsreel-frequency of Traffic, which Gaghan scripted, tidily pulling the balls out of the original and, accordingly, winning an Oscar for his platitudes. Soderbergh returns the favor by standing in the executive producer's chair, so Gaghan, like fellow TV scribe Paul Haggis in Crash, can have his Big Issues: nothing less than the densely braided gridlock of power-plays ping-ponging from the Persian Gulf to Washington, D.C. and everything in between, with as much timeliness shoehorned in as possible. Oil is the drug here, and just Clooney paying back his dues for The Peacemaker isn't enough; the entire world is under scrutiny, Geneva to Texas to Georgetown, Matt Damon as an economic advisor falling in with the family of an ailing emir (country unnamed for the record, natch), and Jeffrey Wright as a corporate lawyer servicing a mammoth merger between oil companies. How does it fit? "It's complex" is the ongoing mantra, and also the excuse for Gaghan's oppressive mumbling.

Not so much complex as unwieldy, Syriana is like a body deprived of blood and nervous systems, just a desiccated brain trudging away. Real-life parallels everywhere you look, perversely drained of life -- Alexander Siddig, a reformist Gulf prince, is turned down for the old emir's throne in favor of his playboy bro, more willing to ball with U.S. policies; a disillusioned agent, Clooney is made fall-guy stooge for his security company, though not before a little lesson in Chinese torture in Beirut; a young Pakistan worker, Mazhar Munir, is fired from his job in the oil fields and joins a radical group bent on grooming disciples for ramming explosive-packed boats into big tankers. "Corruption is why we win," brays Tim Blake Nelson, extended then to Chris Cooper's Texan magnate and Christopher Plummer's designated Evil Guy, two sides of the troika of ruthlessness toasting each other at the end as Clooney and Siddig become bleeps on a monitor for an incoming U.S. missile. "The West has failed," an instructor at Munir's terrorist summer-camp assures the young, and, with the engulfing capitalism of so much of the world in general and the degradation of Bush II's reign in particular, it's as valid a point as any in the movie's relativist view of global breakdown; still, for all the supposed daring (and "complexity"), the picture ends up with the pusillanimous, palms-up gesture of liberal defeatism, the all-powerful system is unchangeable and there's nothing to be done but go home and apologize to your wife for being a jerk. A skeleton of theme minus the meat of resonance, and as riveting as TV; there's always C-SPAN for boredom and FOX-NEWS for issue-flattening, so get the Syriana effect in the comfort of your home.

*

A bombardment begins The Chronicles of Narnia, not one of self-importance like Syriana's but a literal blitzkrieg, a night attack during the London blitz to introduce the four Pevensie siblings (Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley and Anna Popplewell), about to be shipped off to an oversized home away from Mum. The full title includes The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and since this is Disney adapting C.S. Lewis' beloved children's book, one of those three had better make an appearance soon to keep faithful readers appeased in their seats -- sure enough, tiny Henley, the youngest of the brood, ducks inside the looming wardrobe during a rainy-day hide 'n' seek game, only to keep pushing past the fur coats and find the magical land of Narnia waiting for her on the other side, full of ice and mystical critters, first of which is Tumnus the faun (James McAvoy). The other children, Doubting Thomases at first, are to swallow their "logically, it's impossible" reasoning because faith is the theme here, the main ingredient in an evangelical allegory dressed in spectacle duds, the four "sons of Adam and daughters of Eve" landing smack in the middle of a Prophecy to bring peace back to Narnia by aiding the messianic Lion King Asla. The spiritual aspects remain purely notional, but everything is still in the name of the Father, of course, versus the sheer evil of the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), who coaches the Judas out Keynes and contrives a quasi-crucifixion for poor Asla before riding the chariots to battle.

The Chronicles of Narnia kicks off like Harry Potter and ends like Lord of the Rings, so you know Disney ain't taking any chances in hitting the box-office jackpot this season, complete with the wardrobe door left open for a sequel or two, or seven. Still, the film's model might as well be Kingdom of Heaven (Liam Neeson voices Asla, after all), with a special appearance by Father Christmas to pull weapons out of his bag for the budding warriors, though only the boys get to play crusade. Tackling live-action after helming both Shreks, director Andrew Adamson gives preference to the clanking-sword tumult of the battlefield (plenty of carnage for this PG rating) over talking furries, despite the abundance of CGI wolves, foxes, and a pair of beavers who converse in cozy Britishisms. Indeed, Narnia is a melting pot of mythological figures, with cyclops, minotaurs and centaurs, all so digitalized that the images start to suggest old, chintzy superimpositions. Computers rule productions, but all the $180 million could not buy a spec of the childlike magic of Pasolini blending a man and a horse via a mirror trick in his adaptation of Medea -- speaking of which, that 1969 film's use of Maria Callas points to Narnia's solitary element of near-redemption, the polar intensity and regal malevolence of Swinton's villainess, a vividness no less operatic than Callas' and no less majestic for being summoned up next to puppets and blue-screens. A movie that aims for Ned Flanders' version of Wizard of Oz while landing closer to an overproduced calamity like Legend doesn't deserve her diligence.

*

After thrashing a deep-dish think-piece and an adaptation of a revered children's classic, should I feel guilt about having a good time with Aeon Flux? Since I never believed in guilty pleasures, I am free to watch Charlize Theron embody (ahem) the eponymous animé heroine, late of MTV, across a futuristic sci-fi landscape, literally centuries apart from the deglamorized anguish of North Country. (Frances McDormand, Theron's co-star in that flop, pops up as a good-humored reminder of how removed the genre is from the fake grit of Oscar-baiting.) A dystopia, duh, abstract designs and acrobatic gals; it's 2415, most of the human race has been decimated, and what's left lies hidden in an isolated city under a totalitarian regime. The narrative has the heroine on a mission to assassinate the ruler, who's also responsible for killing her sister, though a more interesting trajectory might be the director's, Karyn Kusama, from indie success d'estime (Girlfight) to sleek genre piece unceremoniously dumped by a studio. What's a girl to do in the business? Read whatever political messages or personal statements you may into the frenetic gymnastics, I'm satisfied with Theron gorgeous and witty in black leather, her elongated torso and limbs turned into integral elements of the gleaming mise-en-scène. When a synthetic popcorn-churner like Aeon Flux has more life than would-be inquiries like Syriana, devotees of the cinema might as well pack up and move to Narnia.


Reviewed December 15, 2005.

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