Caché, Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party, and Syriana

Colonial guilt, charming stories from Hollywood, and a petro-thriller without a central character to hook us in.

Caché

Sony, $26.96

Cool and simple but resonating invisibly out into our lives like an X-ray, Michael Haneke's Caché (Hidden) is a mystery wrapped in a tangle of sight lines—you are rarely confident about what you're watching and never sure that watching will be enough. A Parisian couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are inexplicably haunted by videotapes taken of them, by cameras that cannot have been present; eventually, the ensuing paranoia begins not only to unravel their family but to reveal sins of the past. All the while, Haneke implicates us in the surveillance; we're never sure if what we're watching is live or Memorex, and whether the point of view is ours or someone else's. Caché has a devilish structure that makes every cut an occasion for what-is-it-now heebie-jeebies. MICHAEL ATKINSON

Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party

Brinkmann Co., $24.96

For all those sordid tales of Hollywood's supposed depravity, from Fatty Arbuckle to The Day of the Locust to the Viper Room, it's nice to be reminded that ordinary actors and industry professionals can gather together just like the rest of us to laugh, trade stories, and have a good time. In fact, veteran character actor Stephen Tobolowsky—remember the bald, friendly guy Bill Murray punches out in Groundhog Day?—is not dauntingly famous or handsome, though he's been in over 150 movies. He's just a lot funnier and better spoken than average, a guy who loves relating stories from past movie sets and theater productions with a minimum of self-centeredness. As his cinematographer friend Robert Brinkmann follows him around the house prior to his 55th-birthday gathering, Tobolowsky makes storytelling a humble, generous act. Though undoubtedly well-rehearsed—the man is an actor.

Not that he wasn't above a little self- promotion, he recalls, when circa 1970, as a hungry Southern Methodist University drama student, he auditioned to be Ronald McDonald—yes, the Golden Arches clown. Can he take the stage, hold an audience? the executives ask. "I am a beam of light!" he tells them, but he doesn't get the job. Later he describes getting sick while filming in remote Mexico ("Peeing blood is not on the list of good things") and doing LSD back home in L.A. ("If the dog talks to you, listen!").

In this affectionate documentary portrait, Tobolowsky is like a cheerier Spalding Gray, fully aware of life's dark ironies without being overwhelmed by them. Even when he finds himself dressed as a KKK leader in Mississippi Burning, rallying a crowd of extras he only gradually realizes are Klansmen (or sympathizers), or when (in real life) he's held hostage by a gun-wielding nut in a grocery store, he can bring the disturbing anecdote around to an elegant coda, not just an easy laugh. Obviously, that kind of resilience has served him well as an actor, and even better as a party host. BRIAN MILLER

Syriana

Warner, $28.98

Stephen Gaghan's breakthrough year was 2000, when he graduated from TV scripts (New York Undercover, The Practice) to feature film writing with the political thriller Rules of Engagement and his adaptation of the British miniseries Traffik. The latter probably inspired Syriana, a fiction film about dirty doings in the Middle Eastern oil business based in some unspecified fashion on Robert Baer's memoir of life as a CIA case officer, See No Evil. Maybe Syriana would make a little more sense if I'd read that book. But maybe not; because as a second-time director working from his own script, Gaghan has deliberately chosen to deny the viewer any access to the thoughts or motives of three—count 'em, three—main characters, none of whom interacts in any significant way with either of the others. As a result, you can't tell which confusions in the story are the result of this heroic refusal to allow us any empathy with the players, which are due to overly elliptical story- telling, and which (quite a few, I suspect) to severe prerelease editing. Syriana would be close to unwatchable if the three roles weren't played by the always watchable George Clooney (as a near-burnt-out CIA operative), Matt Damon (as a midlevel oil company functionary), and Jeffrey Wright (as a corporate lawyer).

Long story short: Syriana is intermittently exciting, intermittently baffling, consistent only in its atmosphere of utter amorality and corruption got up in Gucci, Prada, and spotless white robes. What sticks in memory are cameos by old pros like Christopher Plummer, Tim Blake Nelson, and Chris Cooper and a wonderful array of unfamiliar (mostly British) actors of Muslim/Arab extraction (Amr Wakel, Alexander Siddig, Shahid Ahmed, Akbar Kurtha, and Mazhar Munir). They are at least allowed to engage our emotions; without their presence, Syriana would be dry indeed. DVD extras don't compensate for that much: a promotional interview with Clooney (gentlemanly and earnest as always); and a bit of agitprop called "Make a Change, Make a Difference," which is interesting primarily for its revelation that Gaghan looks about 25 years old and is conflicted about driving an antique American muscle convertible. ROGER DOWNEY

Other Releases

Even as Johnny Depp stars in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, the wretched Restoration-era backstage drama The Libertine skulks onto DVD. Robert Carlyle goes looking for love in Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School, eventually finding Marisa Tomei. The Brian Jones/Rolling Stones speculative biopic Stoned will appeal to conspiracy buffs who believe Jones was murdered, but few others. And long before The Fast and the Furious (one, two, or three), there was John Frankenheimer's 1966 Grand Prix with James Garner—still a better actor than anyone in the F&F series.

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