In the interest of making sure I got to the theater on time for an early 6pm screening of Che, I cut my afternoon film schedule off after one film. It turns out the seating was reserved (hence the aisle and seat number on my ticket) so I needn’t have bothered. Oh well. It’s all for the better because I don’t even have time at the moment to talk about the other film (Austria’s Best Foreign Language Oscar entry Revanche) before tapping out a few thoughts on Che and then heading back to the theater. So enough jibber jabber. Let’s get to it.

USA 2008

Well, that was something, wasn’t it? With Che, Steven Soderbergh has taken the epic biography popularized in such films as Lawrence of Arabia, Patton and Reds, and he’s stripped it of the artificially dramatic highs and lows, the easy carry-aways and the emotional sweep that make those films so popular. At the same time, he’s made a film about one of the most controversial political figures of the 20th century yet refused to take a stand on his subject (sure to piss off both the left and the right). Oh, and he’s also made a Terence Malick film without the overt lyricism.

That’s a lot of things that Che isn’t and here’s another thing it isn’t going to be: Box office success. Except for some gorgeous digital cinematography (by Steven Soderbergh as “Peter Andrews”) and a great score by Alberto Iglesias, Soderbergh hasn’t seen fit to include any of the things audiences are looking for in this kind of picture and there’s no way in hell average people are going to want to sit through 4 hours of it. Based on the reactions out of Cannes and Toronto, this describes a sizeable chunk of the critical community as well. Unfortunately, I think releasing the film in more easily digestible 2-hour chunks is pointless. Much of the power of the film is in the rise and fall arc both parts describe and I’m not sure how well they’d stand on their own.

So what is Che? Technically it’s a two-part look at Che Guevara. The first part charts his rise as he helps Fidel Castro take over Cuba and the second examines his fall as he tries to apply the same techniques used in Cuba on a larger scale to Bolivia and ultimately to all of South America. That’s the plot in the tiniest of nutshells.

Ultimately though, Che is a contradiction. It’s an epic that looks inward rather than examining the sweep of history. Instead of big historical beats, it’s comprised almost entirely of little moments; of men sitting around a camp telling jokes for example. It’s about a man’s life from relative youth when the whole world is open to him to his later years when he’s increasingly hemmed in by his own choices, his celebrity, his asthma and the Bolivian army – interestingly the first part is in projected in a 2.35:1 CinemaScope ratio and the 2nd part is restricted to standard 1.85:1.

This is kind of a scattered look at the film and that’s a reflection of my immediate feelings. The truth is I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. Like the recent Synecdoche, New York, I didn’t leave the theater feeling like I’d been knocked on my ass, yet the 4 1/2 hours (including intermission) breezed by. Basically, Soderbergh threw me a curveball and I was caught looking. It’s going to take another viewing before I decide whether it’s a good cinematic experiment or a great one. Given another day to mull it over, I might be able to make better sense of it all, but so it is with a film festival.

Anyway, besides the terrific cinematography and score, a special word should be reserved for Benicio Del Toro who disappeared into his role. Unfortunately, it’s such an immersive and subtle performance it probably won’t get him any Oscar love. He inhabits a human being without any scenery chewing speeches or dramatic high points. Ultimately I think it’s for the better and it suits the low-key observationalist style of the film, but it’s going to leave a lot of people feeling like there’s no there there. We’re so used to every performance and every plot point dialed up to 11 and then edited to within an inch of its life, Che is certain to rub a lot of people the wrong way. Soderbergh bashers will have plenty of new ammo, but I think fans will have a refreshing new piece of meat to chew over that feels a bit more substantial than some of his recent efforts.

I’ll take a look at the crime drama Revanche tomorrow, but for now I’m off to The Class and Hunger.

8 Responses to “AFI Fest 2008: Day 2”

  1. Wow, there’s a lot to consider here in your “quick” review. I guess you’ve validated all our suspicions and hopes for Che, so it will be interesting to see how this does on the wider circuit. Glad to hear you have so many positive things to say but I was honestly hoping you’d be more blown away.

    If this film underperforms with critics and audiences as you suspect it will, I have to wonder where Soderbergh’s path in Hollywood lies? The Oceans films have done well, but he hasn’t had much box office (or even critical success) outside those since Erin Brockagodogovich and Traffic. I wonder how a contracting Hollywood will view Soderbergh’s artistic forays down the line?

  2. Glad you got to see this. I can’t wait. I expect it to be as you say. It will be fun to see a big epic stripped of its glitz.

    And Craig and other LA LIC’rs, please come to The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre tonite – my SF Other Cinema curator Craig Baldwin will be in person showing clips from his amazing movie-mash-up works. They’re like Joe Dante’s THE MOVIE ORGY only with more subversive politics. He’s an experimental film genius and one of the best in the world. Man cannot live on Hollywood alone…

  3. I’m happy to see you enjoyed it, Craig (a 4-1/2 hour sitting that breezes by is almost sufficient recommendation for others to see it alone).

    The switch from 2.35:1 to 1.85:1 makes sense from what I’ve read, since evidently the first part of Soderbergh’s epic examines Che in a somewhat more sweeping extroverted manner, and the latter becomes a little claustrophobic and quite intimate in looking at the “fall of Che,” so to speak.

    Excellent summation of your inchoate reaction.

  4. As Joel said so well “you’ve validated all our suspicions and hopes for Che.” Wow, your quick efforts are just as substantive and flowing as the more formal ones.

  5. “a Terence Malick film without the overt lyricism.”

    You have now convinced me to go see this film.

    Looking forward to your thoughts on The Class!

  6. I didn’t read your review here of CHE as positively as some of the others have, especially in view of your long-time excitement to see it. And of course the reviews by and large that have filtered through have been highly disappointing and lackluster.

    I gave THE CLASS three-and-a-half of five; I am definitely eager to see what you make of it.

  7. Compared to my always lofty expectations of Soderbergh Sam, yes as Joel also noted I wasn’t as instantly knocked out by it as I wanted to be.

    This is a case where I think it would’ve been helpful to have read a few things about the movie before seeing it, just enough to give me a better idea what to expect…especially seeing it in the pressure of a festival setting.

    It’ll be interesting to see Joel what happens with the movie and where Soderbergh’s career continues to head. Some of his upcoming projects don’t reek of commercialiity. On the other hand, his last non-Oceans major studio film was The Good German, and that was probably largely payback from WB for all the money he made for them. Che is technically an indie and even if it stiffs in the US, it may well make money internationally.

    Anyway, I’ve thought about it some more since I wrote this and I’m warming up to it. I can’t wait to see it again.

    Soderbergh continues his habit of pushing the envelope. He doesn’t succeed all the time, but for me more often than not and I always admire the effort.

    Alexander, you’re right on about the aspect ratio. I noticed the change when the movie started, but I didn’t think too much about the reasons for it until afterward. The first part definitely has more of an epic feeling and the latter more clausterphobic.

  8. “He inhabits a human being without any scenery chewing speeches or dramatic high points.”

    You’ve put your finger on what I like so much about Del Toro. Fine review, Craig.

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