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Satisfying Academy's, public's appetites with same offerings


"We call the film Elf 2," joked Stephen Gaghan, the creator of Syriana, with a hint of desperation.

The second feature as a writer-director for the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Traffic (2000), Syriana offers an ambitious look at Big Oil and its corrupting effects on governments and intelligence agencies here and abroad.

Gaghan is in the enviable position of opening his new film Dec. 9, when Academy voters grow hungry for Very Important Movies.

But he's also in the unenviable position of rolling it out during a holiday when audiences are likely to want video-game systems humming - or, as in the case of the 2003 hit, Elf, Will Ferrell dancing - in their heads rather than visions of assassins or suicide bombers.

Ambitious filmmakers have faced this paradox of timing year after year, with unpredictable results. Warren Beatty opened Reds on Dec. 4, 1981. He garnered mixed to rave reviews, earned 12 Oscar nominations, and won three statuettes: best director for himself, best cinematography for Vittorio Storaro and best supporting actress for Maureen Stapleton. Yet the movie didn't make its budget back.

On the other hand, Reds' high-profile release - as well as its sky-high aspirations and quality - ensured that it stayed fresh in the minds of movie-lovers. Whenever there's a tribute to Beatty, Reds is sure to be at the center of it.

Something similar happened with Barry Levinson's Bugsy, which opened a decade later, Dec. 12, 1991, and starred Beatty as Bugsy Siegel, the mob visionary behind Las Vegas.

Nominated for 10 Oscars, it received two craft awards and did only middling business. But it remains one of Levinson's most daring, entertaining movies - and a showcase for Beatty's last near-great performance.

The "long view" isn't likely to reassure Syriana's Gaghan, a 40-year-old filmmaker who wants his movie to provoke discussion and help change the social-cultural climate.

Even if critics embrace Syriana and awards groups shower it with trophies, it's difficult to predict whether the college crowds, political junkies and cineastes most likely to support it will keep Syriana afloat through the new year.

After all, Steven Spielberg's Munich opens Dec. 23. Although it has a wildly different focus - the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the search for the killers by Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency - two movies that depict terrorism may be too much even for hearty appetites. (In major markets, two indie movies about terrorism, The War Within and Paradise Now, have made the rounds.)

The situation is reminiscent of 1993, when Walter Hill's Geronimo: An American Legend opened Dec. 10 and Spielberg's Schindler's List opened Dec. 15. "I guess Americans can handle only one genocide per Christmas," Geronimo's screenwriter, Larry Gross, mused to me at the time.

And yet ... Schindler's List, no one's pick for box-office glory, was both an artistic and a financial success, and had the extraordinary effect (thanks partly to Spielberg's generosity) of engendering new oral and video histories of the Holocaust.

Geronimo, though neglected a dozen years ago, has won long-term admirers as one of the few Hollywood productions to treat the plight of the American Indian with sophistication and complexity.

Another piece of 2005 holiday counterprogramming hopes to do the same thing.

It's maverick filmmaker Terrence Malick's The New World, a drama of the founding of Jamestown in 1607, starring Colin Farrell as John Smith and Q'Orianka Kilcher as his fabled lover, Pocahontas. "It was treated as a romance between two people - two human beings who learn about each other and learn of themselves through contact and after spending time together," a surprisingly thoughtful Farrell told

To Farrell, the romance signifies the possibility "of love, understanding, compassion and respect." Malick was intent on dramatizing that Native Americans had "a culture and a life that were very beautiful and very pure."

Even if mainstream audiences experience Malick's open-minded revisionism as a slap in the face, The New World has something else they can hang onto, something Syriana and Munich of course lack: a legendary love story.

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