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Che: Part Two (2008, Steven Soderbergh)

Bolivia didn’t do Butch and Sundance any favors and it doesn’t do Che any either. Che: Part Two isn’t just a downer for Del Toro’s franchising revolutionary (he’s bringing the revolution to Bolivia, whether they want it or not), but it’s an entirely depressing film too. There’s probably not a positive way to tell this story–Che goes to Bolivia and gets killed–but Soderbergh spends the film’s running time (it’s a breezy two hours ten, moves beautifully, probably because the scenes usually are identified with their respective time in relation to the start of the picture) whacking the viewer over the head with bleakness.

The film opens with the kind of text crawl George Lucas would lust for if he cared about doing a good text crawl, then there’s a beautiful televised Castro address on Che’s situation (Soderbergh films the Castro of the first part, Demián Bichir, discreetly, like they didn’t get him back for Part Two). It’s a simple shot of a television playing the address. It’s just great, really implying Soderbergh’s going to be a lot more visually inventive in Che: Part Two than he was in the first part. Fast forward… he isn’t. Che: Part Two is an entirely different film from the first one (not releasing them with their less interlaced titles would have been a fine move… but Part Two is different enough Del Toro didn’t even, necessarily, have to come back for it).

There’s some beautiful shots as Del Toro arrives, in a wonderful disguise, in Bolivia and finds his way out into the wilderness. But the Bolivian countryside is not a good looking place. Soderbergh got Peter Andrews to shoot it grey. The jungles appear devoid of life. The farmers Del Toro and his comrades encounter seem beyond poverty… nothing could grow in Che‘s Bolivia. Not even a revolution.

Che: Part Two‘s a constant downer, as it’s a film about failure. Che goes to Bolivia to inspire a revolution but he can’t. Revolutions, it would seem, can’t be exported. The film’s barely about Che. After opening in a manner to suggest a deeply introspective examination, Soderbergh immediately pulls back. Instead of following Del Toro around, Part Two splits its attention between the government response to Che (they call the United States, who are all too happy to supply military advisors) and the various members of Che’s small group. Franka Potente–identifiable, presumably, because she’s the only woman in the cast, not because she’s a recognizable film personality–gets one group, then some other guys get emphasis. Matt Damon shows up at one point, proving he’s definitely not Johnny Depp. It’s a distracting cameo.

When the film finally does return to Del Toro, it’s a little late. Del Toro doesn’t have much time and he does great work, but it’s not enough. Soderbergh, for the majority of Che: Part Two (or so it would seem, it moves so fast, it’s impossible to properly gauge the time without clocking it), creates this amazing war film. It’s this cat and mouse war movie, with Del Toro and his guerillas hunted by the numerically superior Bolivian army. Soderbergh creates all this sympathy for the supporting cast, just because they’re so terribly outnumbered.

Che: Part Two is a tad more political than the first installment. The Bolivian president–a fine, if underused, Joaquim de Almeida–is not a good guy. The Bolivian army is not good (and not just because they went after Butch and Sundance). Che: Part Two, at its best moments, is about someone so moved with his dream, he can’t see when the kindling’s failing to catch. The film’s a complete downer.

Lou Diamond Phillips is good in a small part. Alberto Iglesias’s music is fantastic.

It just doesn’t connect.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; screenplay by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen, based on a diary by Ernesto Guevara; director of photography, Peter Andrews; edited by Pablo Zumárraga; music by Alberto Iglesias; production designers, Antxón Gómez and Philip Messina; produced by Laura Bickford and Benicio Del Toro; released by IFC Films.

Starring Benicio Del Toro (Ernesto Che Guevara), Carlos Bardem (Moisés Guevara), Demián Bichir (Fidel Castro), Joaquim de Almeida (President René Barrientos), Pablo Durán (Pacho), Eduard Fernández (Ciro Algarañaz), Marc-André Grondin (Régis Debray), Óscar Jaenada (Darío), Kahlil Mendez (Urbano), Cristian Mercado (Inti), Jordi Mollà (Captain Mario Vargas), Gastón Pauls (Ciros Bustos), Antonio Peredo (Coco), Jorge Perugorría (Joaquin), Lou Diamond Phillips (Mario Monje), Franka Potente (Tania), Othello Rensoli (Pombo), Armando Riesco (Benigno), Néstor Rodulfo (Miguel), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Aleida March), Norman Santiago (Tuma), Rodrigo Santoro (Raul Castro), Mark Umbers (George Roth) and Yul Vazquez (Alejandro Ramírez).


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Che: Part One (2008, Steven Soderbergh)

There’s a majesty to Che: Part One, the endless, blue Puerto Rican (I think) sky standing in for Cuba. Soderbergh loves that sky. Soderbergh’s Panavision frame doesn’t allow for much in the way of lyricism–I think the first shot of that nature comes in the last twenty minutes of the film. It’s a great looking film throughout, but Soderbergh lets the subject matter control the viewer’s perception. When he finally does throw in this wonderfully composed shot, it gives the viewer pause, reminding him or her it’s just a filmic narrative.

It should be hard to forget Che‘s a narrative–Soderbergh applies some of those masterful filmic pseudo-non-fiction skills he used in Traffic (to a similarly dispassionate result)–since it opens in a rather traditional manner. A (temporarily) unseen Julia Ormond is interviewing Benicio Del Toro about the early days of the Cuban Revolution, the planning days, and–on cue–the film flashes back. This interview–Ormond finally shows up visually following her introduction in the regular narrative–frames the entire film. It’s a traditional move and probably not a good one. Che‘s an epic biopic–it’s essentially the Lawrence of Arabia treatment, if a tad shorter–it doesn’t do anything to break the format. Like most biopics, Che keeps the viewer outside Che’s head. Del Toro gives a great performance, especially since his character is the least dynamic in the entire film.

Che’s a passive character in the film, certainly not as charismatic as Demián Bichir’s Castro. Del Toro infuses the character with a righteousness–there’s never a moment of doubt the man isn’t fully committed to doing what he says. I’d heard the film doesn’t paint Che in a positive light, but I must have had water in my ears. Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman tell the film from a viewpoint where there’s no way not to see Che as a hero. Che: Part One‘s Communist propaganda to be sure–it’s no wonder it didn’t get a real American distributor–but it’s impossible to imagine it told in any other way. The only time the film ducks out on any responsibility is in terms of Che’s marriage. There’s a big, “I’m married,” revelation scene with adoring revolutionary Catalina Sandino Moreno… immediately followed with Del Toro flirting with her every few minutes. It’s a cheap move–the film goes far to avoid giving too much background on Che, instead letting Del Toro do incredibly heavy lifting creating the character with little story support–the scenes where he’s acting as a physician are incredible, since this element’s introduced early on, so watching the soldier back down in an internal struggle to the physician… it’s lovely.

Soderbergh hasn’t fired Peter Andrews yet and Andrews’s cinematography is beautiful. It’s not just that blue sky, it’s the lush greenness. The last quarter or so of the film is a big urban battle sequence and it’s absolutely amazing. Che‘s never really a war movie, but Soderbergh’s direction of the city-set battle is peerless.

The film’s got a large cast and lots of characters have nicknames, lots have distinctive physical characteristics (so the viewer can recognize them immediately). At times, it feels as though Che wouldn’t be about Che if the film didn’t have the framework (there’s more than the interview, it also covers Che at the United Nations). The film doesn’t do anything to lionize the character in a general sense (it’s impossible to reconcile that iconic image of Che with Del Toro’s creation)–he’s a hero, but because of the way the film’s story is told.

Soderbergh films like Che: Part One always make me forget he’s capable of real emotional depth. It seems like he reserves such explorations of the human condition for his lower budgeted projects. I wish, just once, he’d try the reverse.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; screenplay by Peter Buchman, based on a memoir by Ernesto Guevara; director of photography, Peter Andrews; edited by Pablo Zumárraga; music by Alberto Iglesias; production designer, Antxón Gómez; produced by Laura Bickford and Benicio Del Toro; released by IFC Films.

Starring Benicio Del Toro (Ernesto Che Guevara), Demián Bichir (Fidel Castro), Santiago Cabrera (Camilo Cienfuegos), Vladimir Cruz (Ramiro Valdés Menéndez), Alfredo De Quesada (Israel Pardo), Jsu Garcia (Jorge Sotus), Kahlil Mendez (Leonardo Tamayo Núñez), Elvira Mínguez (Celia Sánchez), Andres Munar (Joel Iglesias Leyva), Julia Ormond (Lisa Howard), Jorge Perugorría (Vilo), Édgar Ramírez (Ciro Redondo García), Victor Rasuk (Rogelio Acevedo), Othello Rensoli (Pombo), Armando Riesco (Benigno), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Aleida March), Roberto Santana (Juan Almeida), Norman Santiago (Tuma), Rodrigo Santoro (Raúl Castro), Unax Ugalde (Vaquerito), Roberto Urbina (Guile Pardo) and Yul Vazquez (Alejandro Ramirez).


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Redbelt (2008, David Mamet)

I was apprehensive about Redbelt–mostly due to the awkward trailers–but it was totally unfounded. The film’s story, Mamet’s narrative, resists being abbreviated or advertised. It’s all very gradual, very quiet, which each scene building on the one previous. It’s probably Mamet’s finest film as a director, his widescreen composition is wonderful–there’s this one shot where Emily Mortimer’s head, in profile, sits in the center of the screen while she talks and it’s exceptional. Also because he forces himself to shut up. Instead of letting characters talk, he brings up Stephen Endelman’s essential score and lets the body language do the work. It’s a David Mamet film where silence is key.

Instead of being a thoughtful, intellectual approach to the karate movie (that long moth-balled genre), Mamet tells a story where the cost of the philosophy–paid so much lip-service in the genre–often outweighs its rewards. Actually, for much of Redbelt, it’s hard to see where there’s any reward, but Mamet manages to show it and does it in an amazing, big, booming Hollywood way and turns in it in perfectly. Redbelt, at times, reminded me of Ghost Dog, but told straight.

Mamet does get to do the rousing fight scene here and it might be, given the importance in the story and for the protagonist, the best fight scene ever in a film. It’s not the most visually dynamic, but the gravity of it… the following will sound a little glib, but Mamet also might have made the best superhero movie ever here too.

The cast hurts nothing. Obviously, Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in an outstanding, amazing performance, but he always seems to turn in those performances so it’s no surprise. There’s a great scene, Mortimer’s first class at the jujitsu academy, where Ejiofor just sits there for a moment. It’s a quiet scene, played from Mortimer’s confused perspective, but Ejiofor’s expression alone tells the viewer the answer to her question, before she even asks it. Mortimer’s good too, with Mamet giving her three great big scenes. Alice Braga is also good, even though Mamet intentionally doesn’t give her big scenes. The Mamet Repertory Actors–Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna and Rebecca Pidgeon–are all good in smaller roles. Tim Allen’s turn as a burning-out Hollywood star is excellent, but it’s some of the unknowns who turn in the most affecting supporting performances. Max Martini has a vocal role and he’s great, but Jose Pablo Cantillo–in a nearly silent role–is almost as good.

Mamet, at his best, can make anything excellent (I always forget he’s a far from prolific director), can turn a genre film into an essential. Redbelt is Mamet at his best.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Mamet; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Stephen Endelman; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Chrisann Verges; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mike Terry), Emily Mortimer (Laura Black), Alice Braga (Sondra Terry), Tim Allen (Chet Frank), Jose Pablo Cantillo (Snowflake), Rodrigo Santoro (Bruno Silva), Ricky Jay (Marty Brown), Joe Mantegna (Jerry Weiss), Rebecca Pidgeon (Zena Frank), David Paymer (Richard), Max Martini (Joe Collins) and John Machado (Augusto Silva).


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