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SYRIANA (R) A film that attempts to be the last word on that scariest of unholy trinities — oil, money and blood — Syriana sometimes seems less like a political art-film and more like a thinking man's horror movie (think Land of the Dead with less cannibalism and where the zombies are rewritten as CIA agents). Writer-director Stephen Gaghan, screenwriter of Steven Soderbergh's similarly timely Traffic, throws together an almost unmanageable ensemble of some two dozen characters, from American politicians and oilmen to Arab sheiks and suicide bombers, in an ambitious attempt to offer up a mosaic of the enormously complicated forces (economic, religious, cultural, etc.) fueling immoral acts on both sides of the ongoing War on Terror. Syriana links political intrigue with human drama, telling its global story almost exclusively through short, intimate, mostly enigmatic scenes that almost never take place in the same place twice, and that reveal their full meaning only in a larger context. There's much that's thought-provoking and even important about Syriana, but the effect of the film is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle that disorients us so much in the beginning we begin to lose patience with seeing it through to completion. When the film finally does begin giving up its secrets, its worldview turns out to be not nearly as complex and subtle as first imagined, and an over-obvious strain of political correctness compromises the movie's later sections. Stars George Clooney (nearly unrecognizable as a paunchy graybeard), Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, William Hurt, Mazhar Munir, Tim Blake Nelson, Amanda Peet and Christopher Plummer. Opens Dec. 9 at local theaters. *** 1/2

USHPIZIN (NR) A poor, ultra-Orthodox Jewish couple in Jerusalem discover the hard way to be careful what you wish for (or pray for) in this modern folk fable from Israel. Financially strapped Moshe and his wife Malli (real life couple Shuli Rand and Michal Bat Sheva Rand) consider the sly low-lifes that show up at their door as a "gift from God," but eventually find their saint-like patience taxed when the uninvited guests begin turning their world upside down. Ushpizin (literally Holy Guests) was made with the cooperation of Jerusalem's notoriously publicity-shy Hassidic community, and the film offers, beyond the modest charms of its story, a rare look at the inner workings of a rarely seen culture. Also stars Shaul Mizrahi and Ilan Ganani. Opens Dec. 9 at Burns Court in Sarasota. Call theater to confirm. ***


AEON FLUX (PG-13) Based on the popular MTV animated series of the '90s, Aeon Flux takes us 400 years into the future to the last city on Earth. Charlize Theron, making her debut in the sci-fi action genre, stars as an underground operative leading the rebels against totalitarian rule of a seemingly perfect society. Also stars Martin Csokas, Jonny Lee Miller and Frances McDormand. (Not Reviewed)

BEE SEASON (PG-13) With a big tip of the hat to La Dolce Vita's famous opening of a Jesus statue flying over Rome, Bee Season begins with a helicopter transporting a huge letter "A" through the air. It's a perfect introduction to a movie about the power of letters and words, among other things, and about how individuals and families are transformed by the distances between words. Bee Season, which is the new film from Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Suture, The Deep End), is a very curious, vaguely cerebral drama about a household in crisis when sixth grader Eliza (Flora Cross) turns out to be a total savant in the area of spelling, causing her academically minded, control freak dad (Richard Gere), a religious studies professor, to begin instructing her in the ways of Kabbalah in order to maximize her gift. Meanwhile, Gere's son (Max Minghella) is getting cozy with the Hare Krishnas on the sly, and mom (Juliette Binoche) is slipping out at night to indulge in a few deep, dark secrets of her own. The basic form here is pure soap, but with flashes of oddly shaped substance and a sprinkling of mysticism that, while it doesn't quite mesh with the rest of the material, is fascinating all on its own. Buying Gere as a Jewish scholar, on the other hand, is a stretch no one should be required to attempt. Also stars Kate Bosworth. ***

CAPOTE (R) Anyone who has read In Cold Blood or seen the 1967 movie version will be basically familiar with the raw material here — a pair of drifters reveal themselves to a reporter while awaiting execution for the senseless slaughter of a Kansas family — but Capote yanks the focus away from the killers and puts it squarely on the writer and his process. That writer is Truman Capote, portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in a performance that gives us traces of all the Capotes that we think we know — the narcissistic dandy, the sensitive artist, the twee fop with the whiney baby voice, the literary powerhouse — and fuses them all into a character too complex and human to be pigeonholed by any of those descriptions. Also stars Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr and Chris Cooper. **** 1/2

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