The year-end deluge seems to have been holding off in deference to Harry Potter. Deference to, or terror of. A trickle of nonchallengers has barely moistened the soil beneath his feet.
If nothing else, Syriana is serioso. Molto serioso. Nominally a "political thriller," it presents not so much a drama as a diagram, didactic in purpose, of the chain-link interconnections, the slow-burn chain reactions, in the Middle Eastern oil trade. It begins, since it must begin somewhere, with the reallocation of oil-drilling rights, in a fictitious desert hot spot, from an also fictitious Texas corporation called Connex to the unfictitious People's Republic of China; and it proceeds -- as the dominos start to topple -- to the internal power struggle between progressive forces and reactionary forces within that Arab emirate, the proposed merger of the shunned corporation and one of its smaller competitors, the investigation into the propriety of that merger by a mild-mannered D.C. lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) doing the bidding of a Capitol Hill éminence grise (Christopher Plummer), the hiring of an overseas American energy analyst (Matt Damon) as a consultant on the progressive side of the power struggle, the skulduggery of a multilingual CIA operative (George Clooney) with a license to kill, and the wanderings of laid-off Islamic oil workers, economic casualties of the reallocation, who ultimately fall in with organized terrorists.
What screenwriter Stephen Gaghan did for the illicit drug business in Traffic, he attempts to do again, as both screenwriter and first-time director, for the even more intricate oil business, adopting some of the same "realistic" conventions (the unsteady camera, the intermittent subtitles, the egalitarian cast of characters, a lack of dramatic emphasis, an absence of heroics), and following the same pattern of crosscutting between plotlines in an apparently deliberate strategy of suspensus interruptus. Limpidity is not his aim. Complexity is, and no matter if the cost is confusion and incomprehension. You really need a scorecard to tell all the players, and even once you have figured out who's who, it's still hard to know which one, or ones, to root for; which outcome would be for the best; which course of action, if any, would clean up the mess. Damon perhaps emerges as the most sympathetic figure, a development tipped off early on by the death of his child. But you can at least briefly sympathetize also with Clooney -- a spy of Graham Greenean scruffiness -- when he is having his fingernails pulled out. In the end, Gaghan convinces us he knows a lot more about how the world works than about how fiction works.
The Dying Gaul permits another screenwriter, Craig Lucas of Longtime Companion and Prelude to a Kiss, to turn director as well, bringing to the screen his own stage play, a behind-the-scenes peek into the studios and boudoirs of Hollywood: the negotiations over a labor-of-love screenplay about the death from AIDS of the writer's lover (his dream director: "Gus Van Sant, I guess, since Truffaut is dead"), the producer's insistence that the central relationship of the script be heterosexualized ("Most Americans hate gay people"), the 1,172 reluctant replacements of "Maurice" by "Maggie" at a single keystroke on the computer, the ensuing affair between the writer and the bisexual married producer, and the dire consequences thereof. (None more dire than the ill-advised tableau vivant of the titular piece of sculpture at the fadeout.) The wife's discovery of the affair and her initial retaliation for it are rather patly facilitated in an Internet chat room by the name of Men on a Park Bench (or Menonaparkbench), where she manages to convince the still grieving writer that she is his departed lover communicating from the Other Side. More Prelude to a Kiss, you might say, than Longtime Companion. Altogether too much of an already stagy, static movie takes place in front of computer screens, or, as a stylized but uncinematic substitute, in front of talking heads reciting online chat. The plotting admittedly achieves a certain level of ingenuity if not a commensurate level of credibility, and it steers a course in a no-man's-land between the "serious" indie relationship film and the "generic" mainstream thriller. The cast of Peter Sarsgaard, Campbell Scott, and Patricia Clarkson sees to it that the course doesn't drift toward the mainstream.
Loggerheads, at the Ken for the next week, spins out three listless storylines, intercut for a semblance of kineticism, and cleverly set at one-year intervals, 1999 through 2001, in separate corners of North Carolina. (Writer-director Tim Kirkman is a native North Carolinian.) Kip Pardue, an HIV-positive pretty boy, devotes his remaining days to saving the turtles at Kure Beach. Tess Harper, the provincial pastor's wife in a place ironically called Eden, frets about the suspected homosexual neighbors who've moved in across the street and about a diminutive nude David on a lawn nearby. And a careworn, and quite touching, Bonnie Hunt hunts for the son she long ago gave up for adoption in Asheville. In time it becomes plain that the storylines are connected and that the larger story -- the combined story -- is of broken connections. The indie limitations of the production do not squelch the sincerity.
Protocols of Zion, a higgledy-piggledy video documentary wrapping up its week at the Ken tonight, goes on the trail of neo-anti-Semitism in the post-9/11 world, in specific the prevalence of a rumor that no Jews died in the Twin Towers, and the persistence of a literary hoax of the late 19th Century, authored anonymously in Russia, that purports to lay out the Jewish plans for world domination, straight from the horses' mouths: the notes of a secret meeting of the Elders of Zion. Filmmaker Marc Levin inserts himself in front of the camera (sometimes with his father, Al) as interviewer and instigator, on a fact-finding mission -- or fiction-finding, more often -- that takes him to street-corner crazies in New York City, an Arab-American newspaper publisher in Jersey, a mail-order White Supremacist, the creator of the Jew Watch website, Trenton State Prison, and eventually Los Angeles for the premiere of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (where "the hottest Jew in Hollywood," Larry David, eludes him at the other end of the phone line). Among the messy mass of information turned up, the most eye-opening bits are probably the clips from a Nazi propaganda film and a couple of Arab TV miniseries, wherein the tables are turned, the shoes are on other feet, and Jews are enlisted to fill the roles of the fiendish villains as conventionally as, in more familiar contexts, Nazis, Commies, or radical Muslims. The cumulative effect of the thing, little offset by a final arm-flapping attempt at uplift, is pretty disheartening.