Sunday, January 31, 2010


Criterion launched a YouTube channel this month. They are posting trailers for recent releases; watch and subscribe here.

By the way, I don't have Netflix, but they are streaming movies from the collection now, including ones I've reviewed here, such as Umberto D. Here is a list of recent additions.


* The Book of Eli, a pleasantly surprising, entertaining action movie with Denzel Washington as the last holy warrior in a world burnt by the sun.

* Crazy Heart, with Jeff Bridges starring alongside Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing grizzled country singer Bad Blake.

* Edge of Darkness, Martin Campbell's violent revenge fantasy wastes good performances by Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, and a craggy Mel Gibson with poor pacing and a meandering plot.

* The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, the resurrected script from Tennessee Williams raises some questions as to its completion, though Bryce Dallas Howard is mesmerizing.


* Louis Armstrong: Good Evening Ev'rybody, a fantastic documentary/concert film of the performer near the end of his life.

* Attraction, Tinto Brass' 1969 exercise in psychedelic over-indulgence. Yawn.

* Big Love: The Complete Third Season, the series about plural marriage chugs along with varying results.

* The Brigitte Bardot Classic Collection, three films of varying quality starring the beautiful icon of French cinema.

* The Drummer, a solid Chinese drama from Kenneth Bi. Plus, a short Swedish animated film called Love & War.

* A Man Called Adam, the 1966 jazz movie starring Sammy Davis Jr. as a troubled trumpet player. Features performances from Louis Armstrong (him again?) and Mel Torme.

* Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures - The Complete Series, the animated cult series from the 1980s finally comes to DVD.

* The Simpsons: The Complete Twentieth Season, in which papers are filed to end this union after two decades of ups and downs.

* Weeds: Season 5, the ongoing dramedy with Mary-Louise Parker starts to regain its footing. But just barely.

* The Zombies - Odessey and Oracle (Revisited): The 40th Anniversary Concert, the surprisingly potent reunion of one of the most underrated bands of the '60s.

For those interested, Tim O'Shea of Talking with Tim ran an interview with me this month regarding film criticism and pop culture. You can read it here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Watching the Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy boxed set doesn't feel like you're just watching movies, but like you are watching history. The history of cinema, to be sure, but also a bonafide historical document. The films contained herein--Rome Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero--were made between 1945 and 1948. They were shot on location, documenting the ravages of World War II by setting the drama in the bombed-out ruins of Italy and Germany. Working with many non-professional actors, operating on a shoestring budget and often shooting with scraps of film, this is the birth of Italian Neorealism.

The stage is set with the 1963 introduction Rossellini filmed for French television, preparing audiences for the airing of Rome Open City. He talks about the hurdles of production and the intention of this effort. He was aiming for a sincere chronicle of what happened, to show the world what his countrymen had just experienced. It's hard not to think of the common reaction we could expect today, of audiences recoiling and shrieking, "No, it's too soon!" When did we become such ninnies, scared of the shadow of our own shared experiences? When Rossellini shot Rome Open City, the title had real significance: Rome was the only Italian city that had been liberated from Nazi occupiers. There he was, standing among the wreckage with his film camera, staring the moment right in the eye, refusing to flinch from the responsibility of telling others what happened. You can see the same thing in Iran when they protest, with citizens raising their cell phones aloft to record what is going down. Yet, in America, we get mad at journalists for telling too much and still can't figure out how to memorialize 9/11. Go figure.

Rome Open City (Roma città aperta - 1945; 103 minutes) is set in Rome during the latter days of the German occupation. There is a brief mention that U.S. forces may be on their way, but no one is sure if that is real or a myth. The story here, as written by Sergio Amidei with some assistance from Federico Fellini, is of the Italian resistance, of the regular people who did not want their country hijacked by Fascists and Nazis. They are the kindred spirits of the French Resistance, as celebrated by Jean-Pierre Melville and others, as well as the Germans who understood they were being dragged down by a madman, most recently immortalized in Bryan Singer's Valkyrie. These ramshackle citizen armies, to my mind, haven't had their stories told enough. As heroes, they are undersung. Rossellini himself would revisit the topic in his 1960 drama Escape by Night, which in a way is almost like a more Hollywood-influenced retelling of the picture that first got him noticed internationally.

In a way, the plot of Rome Open City can be boiled down to a central conflict of two men: the effete Major Bergman (Harry Feist), head of the Gestapo in Rome, and Giorigio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), an engineer who has become the focal point of the resistance movement. Bergman wants to get his hands on Manfredi, to torture the rebel and force him to reveal the plans and identities of his compatriots. Except to suggest this is a man-to-man fight would be to misread the situation in much the way Bergman misreads it. His enemy is not a single man, but an entire city and its populace, the people who refuse to lie down.

Aiding Manfredi in his flight is the noble priest Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), the newspaper man Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), and Francesco's fiancé, Pina. She is played with fierce emotion by the amazing Anna Magnani, who is as much a force of nature as she is an actress. Pina is pregnant with Francesco's child, and also part of the movement, helping organize domestic revolts by gathering housewives for runs on bakeries and other businesses who they believe are hoarding or getting special treatment. The revolt is also generational. Pina's son from a former marriage, Marcello (Vito Annicchiarico), is part of a gang of boys who pull covert operations, blowing up gasoline tankers and the like, banding together on their own against the common enemy.

Rossellini and his writers build their movie out of all these pieces, carefully stacking them one on top of the other, but the structure never feels precarious. The narrative is told in a straightforward, linear fashion, and the unvarnished style--born of necessity, but it would come to define a movement--means they don't get in over their heads. There is little music, no overly fancy shots or stylized lighting; this is boots-on-the-ground filmmaking. There are moments of true beauty, where Rossellini and cinematographer Ubaldo Arata use the rundown environment for compositions with real depth and power, such as when the Gestapo storms Pina and Francesco's tenement and the action plays out on different floors in the building all at once. By contrast, the Gestapo's lavish headquarters are made to look unreal. These aren't invaders, they are imposters made to play dress-up. Rossellini's venom is palpable. For as deadly as he shows the Nazis to be, he also makes them comical. He laughs at them for being stupid, arrogant, and sick in the head.

Again, though, let's not make this sound overly simple. Rossellini is as unflinchingly critical of his own people where they deserve it. The rebels are ultimately brought down by Italians who don't care about anything but their own self-preservation. There are always rats, particularly when times are bad. The director also has no interest in whitewashing heroism. The good guys don't always win in the short run, even if there will be triumph in the long run. Men like Manfredi and Don Pietro show their true heroism in what they sacrifice, and though the ending of Rome Open City is grim, that gray pallor is offset by the determination in the faces of the younger generation, the ones who rebuild after the war. Defiance is more powerful than sadness.

The Americans finally arrive at the start of Paisan (1946; 126 minutes), and the movie's six vignettes track them from their landing in Sicily, through Rome and Florence, and ending up in the marshes of the Po Valley in the North. Long out of circulation, this fascinating anthology film is considered to be the real treasure of this box. Written by a team of screenwriters--Sergio Amidei, Klaus Mann, Federico Fellini, Marcello Pagliero, Alfred Hayes, and Roberto Rossellini--it looks at how the American soldiers and Italian citizens interacted with each other. The individual stories show the struggles with communication, the desire to understand, and the tragedies and sacrifices that would become commonplace.

The film begins with a squad of U.S. troops landing in Sicily, hot on the heels of the Germans. They get a local girl (Carmela Sazio) to guide them around mine fields in the area, and she is left in a seaside tower with Joe from New Jersey (Robert Van Loon), an earnest soldier whose yearning to get along might get them caught. Likewise, in the second chapter, another guy named Joe (Dots M. Johnson) learns a lesson in how bad off the Italian people can be. An African American MP assigned to Naples, he gets a little drunk and is taken around the city by one of a gang of street urchins. The kid (Alfonsino Pasca) ends up stealing Joe's shoes, but anger quickly turns to compassion when he sees where the kid comes from.

Not all the Americans are compassionate, though. Another drunkard, Fred (Gar Moore), misses a chance at love with Francesca (Maria Michi again) in Rome because he has gotten too complacent in his role as a hero, whereas an American nurse (Harriet Medin) rushes into danger in Florence because she is maybe too naïve about the consequences of war. Each of these stories ends on a dramatic moment, on the lesson learned or the last twist of the narrative knife. The technique reminds me of a lot of early American TV series, ones that told different stories every week, such as Naked City or Route 66, where a complete dramatic arc had to be contained in the specified timeframe. Rossellini doesn't really attempt to sew these together. Characters don't recur from chapter to chapter, and there is no hearkening back to any one driving element. Rather, these are marks along a map, the varied experiences of the men and women struggling to get out of a nightmare.

The final two chapters of Paisan are drastically different in terms of mood. The penultimate tale is set in a monastery in the Appenine Range, with real Franciscan monks portraying versions of themselves on screen, welcoming three army chaplains to stay with them. Though the setting is serene, the situation becomes uncomfortable when the monks learn that one of the Americans is a protestant and the other a Jewish rabbi, and they try to convince the catholic priest that they need to be converted. I am not sure if Rossellini intended them to come off as offensive and intolerant, that could just be my modern sensibility, since that is not the note the story ends on.

Far more grim is the final tale, with OSS agents teaming with Italian Partisans, fighting guerilla style on the river in the Po Valley. This remote outpost shows a war that is still very active and sparing few. It's a surprising finale for a film that was made after the end of the war. It strikes me as something one might expect to be made in the midst of a long conflict when there is no victory yet to celebrate. Rossellini the filmmaker, however, always wanted to show history as it was, he wasn't interested in making it seem happier or more convenient. By choosing to end Paisan on a downbeat, he also chooses to spotlight the sacrifice and pay special consideration to fighters whom the public record had not given enough attention to.

Paisan actually feels more slapped together than Rome Open City. It's not just the storytelling style, which in itself is sound, but overall, despite the grander scale of many of its locales, it comes off as the movie that maybe was made with less resources. This could be down to the places where Rossellini and cinematographer Otello Martelli took their camera. The scenes of poverty and the bustling crowds of the cities mix the filmmaker's fictional characters with real people, and once again, the director is also employing a lot of non-actors. Some of the Americans are awfully bad, even sounding like they don't really understand English that well (despite most of them being Americans). But that's part and parcel with the Neorealist style: authenticity trumps clichéd professionalism. In its way, it adds to the cumulative effect of the film. Just as there is no great narrative structure to tidy up the reality of war, there is no containing that chaos in terms of performance. This is life, flubbed speech and awkward moments included. A war may begin because of one act, and it may end with some guys signing a piece of paper somewhere, but within it, there are many trials, many failures and triumphs, and there is no meaning beyond living and dying.

Rossellini turns his camera to the country where so much of the misery of WWII originated for Germany Year Zero (Deutschland im Jahre Null - 1948; 73 minutes). Shooting in the rubble of Berlin, he examines the aftermath of the war as it pertains to one young boy. A 12-year-old whose grammar school years were spent in the Hitler Youth, he is now having to help his family get by, and the day-to-day on the streets is teaching him harsh lessons in morality and survival. While the choice to use a child for the focal point could have been a cheap ploy in the hands of another director, an easy way to get at our emotions, Rossellini, who wrote the film with Max Colpet, handles little Edmund with precision and care, molding him into a heartbreaking example of the effects of war and the trouble facing a populace being forced to start over.

Edmund is played by child actor Edmund Meschke (as you may have noticed, it was Rossellini's practice to sometimes give characters the same name as the actors playing them). The boy is effective in the role in a way only a kid can be. Much of the part demands that he be a blank slate. Edmund has not yet established his own identity, and so he is a follower. He has traded the Hitler Youth for a gang of Dickensian thieves and con men, led by a creepy sort-of Fagin, Edmund's old teacher (Erich Gühne). Edmund's family is worried that the boy has become corrupted, but they are ineffectual to stop it. We even learn that his sickly father (Ernst Pittschau) tried to keep him out of the Hitler Youth, having lost his older son, Karl-Heinz (Franz-Martin Krüger), to the army. Karl-Heinz has returned home, but he has been hiding in the family's tiny apartment, fearing punishment if he registers as a former soldier. Both of the older men being unable or refusing to work is what shifts the burden to Edmund, and thus necessity is a large part of his corruption. The need to survive can push us to terrible things. His older sister, Eva (Ingetraud Hinze), is also skirting the line. She flirts with foreign soldiers in bars to get cigarettes she can later trade for other things, yet she refuses to trade her womanhood to get even more.

Berlin was still in a horrible state when Rossellini took his crew there. The tenements where Edmund and his neighbors live are crumbling and hollowed out. Multiple families cram into tiny apartments; in Edmund's building, likely on the only floor that is habitable. The post-war government is dictating where people live, forcing the owners of the apartment, the horrible Rademaker family (led by the slimy Hans Sangen), to take in these ne'er-do-wells despite his protests. They literally have nowhere else to go, the society is now being compelled to take care of the infirm and the immigrants they might have once cast out. In Rossellini's hands, these unstable, near empty ruins become a metaphor for Germany's moral center. The ideology that had taken them over is in tatters. In one powerful scene, when Edmund is trying to sell a vinyl record of one of Hitler's speeches to some American soldiers, the dead Führer's speech predicting victory for the homeland sounds even more delusional and sad when played over images of the destruction.

The crux of the film is Edmund being faced with another wrong choice, and when he takes it, realizing that the people who have led him there have led him astray. It's a disastrous epiphany, because the boy is left with nothing. It's Edmund's year zero, a total reset, but the true shame of it all is that he doesn't have the tools to start over and rebuild.

I don't believe that Robert Rossellini thought that there was no hope left. I think he truly believed the German and Italian people would persevere. From what we can gather from what the director said about these films, his intention with the War Trilogy was to make sure that the people remembered. Moving on from what happened was useless unless we remember what happened, and so while much of what is portrayed in Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy is bleak, it's not unnecessarily so. Also, given the faith that Rossellini had in the power of cinematic images, he likely knew that filmgoers would walk away with the more hopeful messages tucked away in their hearts. The resistance fighters in Rome Open City, the people offering aid to one another in Paisan, even Eva hanging on to her principles when it would be so much easier to do otherwise in Germany Year Zero--these positives dominate over the negatives. Granted, we have the benefit of history to know where it will all go, but we also have the knowledge that history does repeat, having seen that governments and their people can still go in the wrong direction. Some will always refuse to learn from past mistakes, and we can only cross our fingers that there will always be more people like Roberto Rossellini and those he portrays that will do everything they can to stop the bad guys from getting away with it.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Before Belgian director Chantal Akerman redefined experimental feminist cinema with her scathing and insightful Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the young artist had to undergo a pilgrimage. It was one that required her to travel great distances both physically and artistically. It's this pilgrimage that is examined in the new Eclipse Series 19 boxed set, Chantal Akerman in the Seventies. Five movies on three discs, this collection looks at Akerman's career before and immediately after Jeanne Dielman, and taken all together, they create the image of a developing talent finding her cinematic voice.

DVD 1 of Chantal Akerman in the Seventies falls under the umbrella of "The New York Films." These are three no-budget explorations by a young woman in a strange city. Akerman left Brussels for New York in 1971. She was twenty years old, and though she had begun to make short films at home (one of which, Saute ma ville, can be seen on the Criterion edition of Jeanne Dielman), her new locale and the simultaneous feelings of acceptance and displacement that it inspired opened up a whole new world for her. The three movies represented here, released in 1972 and 1976, are collections of footage she shot around the city during her stay there. Ensconced in the underground film scene, she pushed herself to find new methods of expression.

Leading the set is La chambre (1972; 11 minutes), a short formalistic exercise. Working with her long-term collaborator Babette Mangolte on camera, Akerman stars as herself, the lone figure in a small apartment. The entire film is shot from one position, the camera situated in the center of the lodging, slowly circling the room, capturing the details and the filmmaker in repose with each pass. The only thing that changes is Akerman--who is in bed, sits up, and eats an apple--but as the image goes round and round, it compels you to look, to pay attention to the details and seek out other changes, other tell-tale signs of life. The movie itself is entirely silent (as in no soundtrack, not even a trace of ambient noise), as is its follow-up, Hotel Monterey (1972; 62 minutes). The second movie is a series of images taken at the titular hotel, a rundown building in Manhattan.

Hotel Monterey begins by spying on the lobby, looking at the people coming and going, before moving up the elevator and picking up stationary shots of quiet hallways, a few guests in their rooms, and lonely stairwells. The photography, again by Mangolte, is beautiful and painterly. (The box description compares it to Edward Hopper, and the dark color schemes definitely bring his work to mind.) It didn't really hold my interest, though. I don't have the patience for an exercise of this length. I even put music on in the background to try to keep myself from drifting. (Abel Korzeniowski's score for A Single Man.) I get what Akerman is doing, the way she is manipulating the passage of time in order to create a sense of space, eventually moving beyond the interior and out into the exterior, but Hotel Monterey lost me.

Random footage is put to better use in News From Home (1976; 86 minutes), in which Akerman juxtaposes images of New York with letters her mother wrote to her when she first left home. The director and her camerawoman, alongside additional camera operator Jim Asbell, shoot all over the city, taking in vacant lots, buildings, traffic, and subway crowds alike. We watch as life moves in front of the lens, with people often looking back at us as we stare at them, and the noise of the city quietly bleeds out of the speakers. Intermittently, Akerman shares the letters, reading her mother's passive aggressive missives with a detached tone. There is something unnerving and maddening about hearing this distant woman guilting her daughter to come home while also witnessing Akerman's great love for her new locale. The snippets of news from Belgium emphasize the distance and the longing for the familiar, evoking a sensation of being in two worlds at once.

For her first full-length feature, Akerman embraces the most timid of narrative structures. Je tu il elle (Me You He She) (1975; 86 minutes) is a black-and-white portrait in three acts. Act One, a woman named Julie (played by Chantal Akerman) locks herself in an apartment, where she lazes about, eating from a paper bag full of sugar and writing and rewriting a letter to an unknown lover. Act Two sees her impulsively leave the apartment and head out on the road, where she hitches a ride with a trucker (Niels Arestrup), whom she fixates on but who only shares his abstract philosophy on love after she gives him a hand job. Act Three shows Julie arrive at the apartment of her girlfriend (Claire Wauthion). The two have a romantic dynamic that toys with need and denial: one expresses need, the other denies, then switch. This culminates in fidgety lovemaking, a kind of naked wrestling match.

Akerman is messing around with space and time here, as she did in Hotel Monterey. The shots are long, and they compel us to linger on specific details. This is particularly pronounced in Act Two, where the focus of Benedicte Delesalle's camera is regularly off of Julie and on the trucker's face. She watches him diligently, almost obsessively, and in a scene where the driver shaves his face in a public bathroom, the way we see Julie staring at him with her gaze also reflected in the mirror suggests she is looking as intently as she expects her audience to. In Act One, the director establishes a disconnect between decision and action, effectively recreating Julie's sluggish mind by conveying her thoughts in voiceover first, then showing her acting on those thoughts a few moments after they have passed.

Essentially, the director is exploring her relationships with herself, men, and women, examining how she deals with each. At least how I interpret it, she is expressing uncertainty and frustration with her own ability to be on her own. The sugar is a childish sustenance, the inability to get the letter right suggests complications with self-expression. Men are seen as a convenient way to get along, but they are ultimately more concerned with their own needs, and the way the driver only speaks about his feelings following orgasm makes him seem like an overgrown child confessing to his latest maternal stand-in. On the other hand, Julie is predatory and forceful with her girlfriend. Is this maybe the ex that she has been writing to? Is she as incapable of tenderness as the truck driver? Like him, she only calms when the pleasure is focused exclusively on her.

Like all of Akerman's films, there is no point in Je tu il elle where the author turns around and says, "Okay, this is it and this is what it's all about." Her experiments with framing and shot-length and her unconventional story set-ups are meant to provoke, and sometimes the response is delayed--just as it was for Julie locked in that apartment. Meaning never hits you all at once, particularly in this film, where the three parts are so distinct. It's like an entrée with a trio of individual flavors, all of which stand alone, but once you've scooped them into one big bite, a new, complete flavor reveals itself.

The final film in Chantal Akerman in the Seventies - Eclipse Series 19, Les rendez-vous d'Anna (1978; 126 minutes), was made after Jeanne Dielman and also after News from Home. Both of those films play their part in influencing Les rendez-vous. This semi-autobiographical film follows a successful filmmaker named Anna Silver (Aurore Clement) on a trip to Germany, where she is showing her latest film (Jeanne Dielman?). When she arrives at her hotel, a message from her mother (Lea Massari) is waiting for her. It seems Mom has been trying to get a hold of her daughter for some time, and the communication that we are privy to is very much like the real letters Akerman received from her own mother. "Where are you? What are you doing? Why don't you contact me?"

Like Je tu il elle, Les rendez-vous is structured as a series of encounters. There is the man she meets at her film premiere (Helmut Griem), a sad single father and cuckold; the older family friend (Magali Noël) she meets at a train stop on her way to Brussels; the stranger on the train (Hanns Zischler); and eventually her mother and a former lover (Jean-Pierre Cassel). Anna is another of Akerman's blank canvases, a woman we get to know by the way she reacts to these various people and how they react to her. There is an obvious parable here about how a creative person feels isolated and misunderstood. No one gets Anna as she is, they all want her to fit a role they have for her in their heads. The German one-night stand wants her to fit his romantic ideal, while the old friend speaks to her of marriage and children, encouraging her to accept the norm that is expected of all women. In all these encounters, the other characters are somehow tied into history, both international and personal. Europe, it seems, has made as many bad choices as the individuals seen here have in their love lives. Many of the characters, including Anna, have been displaced. They are looking for life somewhere other than where they are. Even her ex, Daniel, wishes he could abandon everything and disappear--and he's the go-to guy! The safe place to return to is not so safe, not so stable.

There is a formalism to the acting in Les rendez-vous d'Anna that reminds me of Robert Bresson and his theory about actors as "models." The performances are stiff and deliberate, with the actors sometimes visibly spotting their marks and going to them. They speak with little inflection, and stand up straight, positioned with intent. Akerman and cinematographer Jean Penzer frame them in static, straight-ahead shots. If it's a two-person conversation, they stand equidistant from one another, either face to face or looking off into the same direction, the camera remaining locked. For all the movement in their lives, they are stuck in the moment, only Anna keeps going.

The irony for Anna is that the only person she connects to, a female fan she met in Italy, is the one person she can't grasp. While everyone else is trying to hold her, this other woman is constantly beyond her reach. She can never get this lover on the phone, and her journey back to Brussels and then Paris only puts more distance between them. Anna opens up about this to her mother as the two of them share a bed in a hotel near the train station. In a weird way, it's another one-night stand, and it's our one true glimpse at Anna's interior, a confirmation of the loneliness and grief we imagine follows her around. The fact that she asks her mother to get a hotel room rather than going back to their house indicates that Anna is only comfortable with transient things. She can't accept anything permanent, and even when she thinks she knows what she wants, she realizes she doesn't want it once it's available. Thus, she sends away the man in Germany before they have sex, or when she and the family friend, Ida, go in search of food, Anna decides she is not hungry as soon as they step through the restaurant doors.

News from Home ends with an extended shot of leaving New York City. Filmed from the back of a boat, we watch as the traveler gets farther and farther from the shore. It's one move in a journey that began prior to La chambre when Akerman left Brussels for the Big Apple. It's one that is turned to metaphor in Je tu il elle, and that is completed by the cycle of the successful filmmaker Anna passing through various stops in her life in Les rendez-vous d'Anna. The mother's letters receive their response and personal questions about art and sexuality and personal connections are at least broached, if not answered.

When Anna returns to her homebase of Paris, she returns to an old lover, a la Julie. There are also visual echoes of the New York films--shots of Paris passing taken through a taxi window, the empty hallway of Anna's apartment. For the first time in the movie, she reaches out to someone else, attempting to literally nurse her love back to health by taking care of a feverish Daniel. Yet, illness is its own "other state," and he rejects further advances. In the end, she is back home, alone, listening to the disembodied voices on her answering machine, the phantoms that have tried to touch her, but all said and done, she is still nowhere. "Anna, where are you?"

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

CHE - #496

"We now are in a time period where if a film doesn't receive unified acclaim, then it's viewed as damaged or a failure or something worse, and that's unfortunate. I don't feel there's a sense anymore that a movie can be polarizing and that can be a good thing. It's literally what is the number that you got on Rotten Tomatoes and if it's below a certain number, then your movie's not any good. You can imagine the number 2001 would have gotten on Rotten Tomatoes...."

- Steven Soderbergh, from the Making "Che" documentary, DVD 3

Few people have earned the level of respect I hold for Steven Soderbergh. When I first saw Che, the director had brought the roadshow version to Portland's Cinema 21, answering audience questions after a marvelous marathon showing of the movie in full. I've met plenty of people whose art inspired me over the years, and I usually have no problem keeping my cool. When I met Soderbergh, I got nervous and twitchy. My voice shook as I handed him a copy of one of my books, a small fantasy playing out in the back of my head that I would eventually get a call that he wanted to option it. One hopes that no matter how successful a person gets that they could continue to have such fantasies. Why do you think Barack Obama invites musicians he likes to the White House?

I have a feeling that Steven Soderbergh is also someone who still hangs on to his fantasies. The audacious creativity he shows from film to film leaves little doubt he dares to dream. In a way, he's a throwback to the directors who came up through the studio system in Hollywood's Golden Age, guys who never knew what their next assignment would be. Like how Robert Wise's first two movies were a historical drama and a horror movie, followed eventually by film noir, a boxing movie, comedies about oil lobbyists, war stories, corporate intrigue, and eventually some of the most popular musicals of all time. The difference is that Soderbergh has cinematic history to back him up, and he not only jumps around from subject to subject, genre to genre, but he picks and chooses what time frame he wants to emulate. Out of Sight was a 1970s crime picture, as much a character study as it was a plot-driven heist movie; The Good German emulated the 1940s in a bold and blatant manner; The Informant! laced in elements of 1960s screwball to underscore its story, especially with its Marvin Hamlisch soundtrack. Soderbergh also regularly returns to the cheap, arty indie fare he helped set the standard for with sex, lies, and videotape.

There are few filmmakers who would undertake a four-and-a-half hour, two-part biography of Che Guevara, insisting that it be filmed in Spanish to make it more authentic. Which came first? Soderbergh's mad plan or the jokes about Vincent Chase wanting to do the same thing to make Medellín on Entourage? At one point, Vinnie was even going to be replaced in the role of Pablo Escobar by Benicio Del Toro.

Che turned out better for Soderbergh than Vincent Chase's film did for him, even if it wasn't a huge box office hit. (Though, given Soderbergh's cross-platform release, making the movie available through cable on-demand services at the same time it toured theatres, it probably did better than most folks think.) It's doubtful anyone involved with Che set out to make it thinking it was going to make massive money. This is a movie like Warren Beatty's Reds, one that was made precisely because it was such an artistic gamble. It's something that both filmmakers needed to do, consequences be damned.

Beatty and Soderbergh likely looked back at the same influences when they made their films (and who knows, Soderbergh might have actually looked to Reds). Namely, I see Che as a modern political epic on par with the big movies of David Lean. In particular, Lawrence of Arabia, the story of one man, a controversial figure, who travels great lengths across harsh environments to get to his goal. Both Che and Lawrence of Arabia have two-act structures, with the break between Part I and Part II signalling significant change for the man. The difference with Soderbergh's picture is there is almost an air of "just the facts" to how Soderbergh and writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen put the narrative together; there isn't the same sweep of drama that marks the Beatty and Lean.

Part I of Soderbergh's film is the story of Ernesto Che Guevara's part in Fidel Castro's overthrowing of General Batista and claiming revolution in the name of the Cuban people. Benicio Del Toro starts the movie as the clean-shaven doctor joining the political cause, and he ends it as the hairy guerilla fighter immortalized on a million T-shirts and posters on college dorm walls. This portion of the movie covers three years, 1956 to the start of 1959, tracking the drive of Castro's forces from the coast of Cuba inland toward Havana. Intercut with this is black-and-white footage of Che visiting the United Nations in 1964, talking to the press, rich American intellectuals, and the whole of the UN, making a case for Cuba's independence. This is the first visual distinction Soderbergh makes in Che, contrasting the colorful and rich greens of the Cuban jungle with the newsreel-style footage in New York, which is meant to reflect how the world actually would have seen Che Guevara on his visit to the States, beamed out to them on their television screens.

There is another major difference, though this one perhaps unintentional. The New York scenes are shot in an almost cinema-verite style, more loose and off the cuff. It's possible that Soderbergh is making a kind of cinematic pun, using the free-floating shooting techniques of the French New Wave, matching their filmic revolution to Che's political revolution. By contrast, the colorful Cuban scenes are more traditionally choreographed, with the camera often rooted in one spot. The Santa Clara sequence in particular looks and moves like an old-school battle scene, like something out of a John Sturges movie. Efficient, business-like, but still full of tension.

Che was the first movie to be shot entirely with the RED One Digital Cinema camera, and the device freed Soderbergh--who shoots his own films under the name Peter Andrews; also, look for him briefly as the television director when Che is getting interviewed for "Face the Nation"--to experiment and change his style and have it flow seamlessly from one look to the next. Part I of Che is shot in the very wide aspect ratio of 2.35:1, just like a big budget color movie from the 1950s or '60s, whereas Part II is a more restrained 1.78:1. This is meant to illustrate the nature of the two sides of the story. The Cuban campaign is large, full of promise, and triumphant; the Bolivian offensive is cramped, dirty, and ultimately a failure. Che spends most of the time trapped in a forest, unsure of how to get out, and so the screen boxes him in, as well. The color palette even changes. Part II is dirty, brown, and gray; it's sickly and sun-bleached.

Benicio Del Toro plays Guevara as an enigmatic, distant creature. He is kind of the quintessential Del Toro character, actually, as Del Toro's natural presence tends to put him a step or two removed from the audience. Many remember him first seeing the actor as the indecipherable Fenster in The Usual Suspects. In that role, language made him unknowable, which was also a component of how we perceived his character in his other collaboration with Soderbergh, Traffic. In that movie, he played a Mexican cop who eventually became entangled in a U.S.-based drug sting, and though his was an essential component of the movie, he was also separate. Foreign. Likewise, as Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he was practically a hallucination, a sidekick who didn't exist outside of Hunter Thompson's field of vision. It will be interesting to see how this quality comes into play in his performance as Lawrence Talbot in the upcoming The Wolfman remake.

Throughout the first half, Del Toro's Che is a purposeful speaker. He is nearly humorless, completely dedicated to his mission, dogmatically so. He doesn't travel across the Cuban countryside as a warrior so much as he comes across as a missionary, a holy man ready to spread the gospel. As Soderbergh shows him, he talks his way toward Havana, be it convincing the peasants that he has come to help, motivating his troops, or negotiating with enemy officers. Some have complained about this saintly portrayal of the man, believing any film that doesn't get into the atrocities he committed toward his political enemies could never be an accurate depiction. To get into that period of Guevara's career, however, would probably require a third part to the movie, one that would sit uneasily with these two.

The way I see it, Soderbergh, Buchman, and van der Veen weren't concerned with the right or wrong of Guevara's mission. They aren't taking any sides. In fact, you could say they abstract the character to make him the mission and nothing more. Che in this movie comes to embody the revolutionary impulse, the living icon, more than just a face on a shirt. His entire life becomes about the next liberation. Part I of Che ends by flashing back to the portentous first conversation with Castro, where he agrees to join the cause if Fidel (played here by Demian Bichir) promises he can take the fight to all of Latin America once they have freed Cuba. Part II is then the portrait of a man whose single-mindedness takes him too far off the rails. He subsumes his own identity to the socialist ideal. In the opening scenes of Part II, we see Che in disguise, renouncing his Cuban citizenship (if in gesture only) and heading to Bolivia, not just unrecognizable to us, but also to himself. He is a personality in crisis.

Che spends almost a year, 1966 through 1967, wandering around in the Bolivian jungle, sinking further into the morass of his own idealism. The hubris of righteous belief is taking for granted that everyone else will get on board; the Bolivians do not. The man seems to retreat into himself. He goes by a different name, never allowed to be who he really is, and his asthma all but knocks him down. The motivational speeches are almost entirely gone, there is no more of the smooth-talking rebel. Del Toro physically transforms himself, letting his hair and beard grow long, changing his posture to be more hulking. Che has been turned into a freakish outcast. By the end of the movie, his myopia has so overtaken him, we are literally looking through his eyes.

Part II is so mired in disappointment and failure, I am not sure there is any way for Soderbergh to keep it from dragging. The endless trek through the jungle starts to look the same after a while, which puts us in the shoes of the soldiers, but it may also put some people off. The Bolivian troops are a lot more anonymous than the Cuban rebels Che commanded. We don't get to know them, there aren't the distinct personality types. In Cuba, we had the teenagers who grew up in the rebel army, we had Little Cowboy and his cowboy boots, we had Che's fellow officers, who teased and joked with him, and we also had Aleida (Catalina Sandino Moreno from Maria Full of Grace), the love interest that lurked around the edges. Here, Che takes little interest in his soldiers. He's not educating them, his attitude has changed. While in Cuba he rejected a sixteen-year-old as being too young, in Bolivia he says that's an age where a man is old enough to know what he wants. This keeps the guerillas detached from the audience. Which, again, is accurate, but not as involving. Can we fault a filmmaker, though, for making us feel in a way that is appropriate to the subject?

Che ends with a brief shot of Guevara back on the boat that first carried him into Cuba, reminding us of the youthful promise he once represented, but now colored by all that has followed it. In this last shot, Del Toro somehow looks older, and he now appears pensive. It's a reminder of how far we've come, from that point until now, and the way we see Che is with a new perspective. He has become a man on a collision course with destiny, and we are left to wonder if it was all worth it. The hope of yesterday dies amidst the deluge of too many tomorrows.

Criterion's release of Che is a three-disc set, packaged in one of their beautiful booklet-style boxes, featuring Eric Skillman's trademark photo illustrations. Each part of the movie is given its own disc, and the third disc is all supplements. The thrust of the extras is history--the history of the production and the history behind it. The film and its winding path from conception to completion is covered at length in a 50-minute making-of documentary. Those curious about how Che came about and why the production team made the choices they did will be more than satisfied by this lean, forthright peek behind the curtain. Even the criticisms the film's detractors leveled at Che are addressed. There is also a separate documentary about the use of the RED One camera that should please tech heads. Soderbergh even touches on the fact that Che the man was considered a cold personality, and addresses my query regarding the tone of the movie: he wanted Che the film to be chilly like Che the man.*

The commentary for both movies is by Jon Lee Anderson, the author whose biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life was the major source material, alongside Che's diaries, for the movie. Anderson describes the intersection of fact and cinema. Soderbergh was intent on showing only events that could be backed up with historical documentation, and Anderson in turn backs the director up in his goal. There are also new interviews with other historians and people involved in the real events on DVD 3, alongside a 1967 British documentary about Bolivia's situation at the time Che's mission failed called End of a Revolution. This 26-minute program was aired on Granada's "World in Action" in England, and begins with images of Guevara's corpse. Talk about a cold opener!

There is a deleted scene from Part I where Che tells one of his men that he needs to build a hospital in a remote area. The man asks how, he doesn't have the supplies. Che, unbending tells him to figure out a way. This small scene encapsulates the figure: he saw what needed to be done and never wavered from the conviction that it could and would be done. Whatever it took, he'd figure it out. That was how he lived, and that also embodies this production. Against all odds, the people behind Che figured it out. They saw a movie to be made, and they got it done.

And for the record, Che's score on Rotten Tomatoes is currently at 62%.

* As a glimpse inside my process, I always nail down the body of my review before I watch the extras so as to formulate my own opinions free of the influence of others. So, in a case like this, if I have a question that is answered in a bonus feature, I really did ask it and try to wrestle with it myself before stumbling on the revelation. That said, Soderbergh also mentions John Sturges, and so it makes me think that Sturges came to mind for me because the director must have also mentioned that influence when I saw him speak last March.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.