Sunday, September 17, 2006


This is a very well-made movie, written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar winning screenwriter of Traffic. Like that movie, Syriana is composed of several interconnected stories all centered around the social, political, and business events surrounding an oil deal in the Middle East. The story is a bit hard to follow - it's difficult to determine who's working for who, and who wants what. But I think this was intentional, because the allegiances of the characters are constantly changing in the movie. And also the movie never gets preachy, never takes a strong political or moral stand. All the characters have good intentions, along with other motives that are more questionable. In that sense, it's true to life.

The movie has that pseudo-documentary feel that we saw in Traffic. I almost wonder if the movie would have been more powerful with all unknown actors, so that we really would get that illusion of reality. As it is, whenever George Clooney or Matt Damon pop up on the screen, it's pretty obvious it's a movie. But I think when you have a chance to work with two great actors like that, you take it. I thought this movie would be a George Clooney star vehicle, but it is not. He has a prominent role, but it is truly an ensemble cast, and a good one. In particular I like Alexander Siddig (who I first saw in Kingdom of Heaven) as the idealistic Prince Nasir, fighting to bring democracy and improved human rights to his country. The fact that the CIA is trying to unseat him because he will not allow the U.S. to build military bases in the country, is perhaps the single clearest injustice portrayed in the film.

But the real star of the movie is the Middle East itself, this dangerous land of prayer, oil, sand, and blood. We read all the news stories, but the environment pictured on the screen seems so foreign to our way of life here. But the movie does a great job of showing common threads that run through both cultures - love of family, young people trying to find jobs, good people and bad people.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Moby Dick

Through this American lit class, I have finally read Moby Dick, a book which many consider to be The Great American Novel. I, of course, am in no position to judge the accuracy of that statement, but here are some thoughts on the book.

It's a long book, 800 pages in the edition that I read (albeit with small pages, big font, and some nice illustrations). Because of the language it's a bit of a tough read, and it also requires perseverance. Because in between the moments of intense action are these canyonesque sections on whale anatomy, ship anatomy, every person on the boat, every duty they perform on the boat, etc. I wonder if Melville was trying to get the reader to empathize with the life of the whaler, who himself sees the thrill of the chase separated by these long days of monotonous duties. I have to say though that I was not comfortable with some of the details of the whale killing -- it's not quite politically correct in these days of environental conscienceness. But to give Melville credit, he really exudes the respect of the hunter for the hunted, unlike the impersonal, mechanized hunting of today.

There is quite a cast of memorable characters on the ship, but dominating them all is this figure of Captain Ahab. I'm not sure if he is some study in obsession, or perhaps some critical statement on the American workaholic? But his is the personality that drives this book forward. I also liked this character Starbuck, who seems to be the archetype for the 'right hand man' we see so often in American film. He serves as a voice of reason to the extreme behavior of the captain. They are always at odds, but in the end he is the only one that Ahab really trusts. There is this extremely poignant scene near the end where Ahab confides in Starbuck his doubts that perhaps he has wasted his life in this obsessive pursuit of revenge. Very moving. This is a long book, and tough, but the last 100 pages or so are totally worth it.

Friday, September 1, 2006


This really is an incredible film, and in my opinion one of the most stunning achievements in cinema history. Mel Gibson, in only his second turn as actor/director (after the rather pedestrian Man Without a Face), decides to create not just an epic, but a historical epic, replete with period costumes, huge battle scenes, and tough on-location shooting in Scotland. The result? A film that garners 10 Oscar nominations and 5 wins, including best picture, best director, and best cinematography.

This is a long film (3 hours), but it doesn't feel that long, I think because Mel Gibson really gets us involved with the character of this man William Wallace, who struggles against the ruling British and against his own Scottish noblemen to win freedom for his people. We see many facets of this historical figure - his idealism, his leadership, his military genius. And yet we also understand that he is, as Gibson puts it, "a savage". And it is hard not to become enthralled with his story.

The movie benefits from a very good cast, most of whom were then unknown in the U.S. Sophie Marceau is radiant as Princess Isabelle, as is newcomer Catherine McCormack as Wallace's childhood love, Murron. And British veteran actor Patrick McGoohan is particularly good as the creepy and explosive King Longshanks.

This movie really is a great achievement, and brought the period epic back in to U.S. cinema, paving the way for movies like Gladiator, Troy, etc.