Steven Soderbergh’s atonement for the Ocean’s capers: a four-and-a-half-hour worship service in honor of Che Guevara, conducted in Spanish with English subtitles. Or rather, if Full Frontal and Solaris were atonement for ...Eleven, and Bubble and The Good German were atonement for ...Twelve (insufficient though they may have been), then Che: Part One and Part Two are atonement for ...Thirteen. As long as he keeps slipping down, he’ll have to keep crawling back up.
The two parts of Che, scheduled to open March 6 at Landmark’s Hillcrest in a “roadshow” format with an intermission in between and a higher admission price beforehand, are really two distinct movies. The first, in wide screen and in roomy frames, operates a time shuttle between vivid color re-enactments of the overthrow of Batista in the late Fifties and grainy black-and-white faux news coverage of Guevara’s visit to New York in the mid-Sixties for interviews with the press and speeches at the United Nations. Nothing is sustained (the shuttle runs continuously) until the extended battle in the last reel or so. We instead get scenes, glimpses, moving snapshots of the Lifestyle of the Revolutionary and Famous: walking through the woods, resting up, slapping comrades on the back, exhorting the troops, etc. There are no rises and falls in the narrative contour, just a kind of flatline. Benicio del Toro and Demián Bechir can pass for Guevara and Castro as well as anybody could in the same beards and hats, and with the same pipe and cigar. The curtain line, “We just won the war. The Revolution begins tomorrow,” seems to indicate where the story will resume after the break, but in fact doesn’t.
The second part, in narrower screen (although still in roomy frames), and in less vivid color and no black-and-white, unfolds a straightforward chronological account of Guevara’s final year, 1966-67, his ill-fated attempt to do in Bolivia what he had done in Cuba. There is another extended battle toward the end of it, and prior to that a lot more of authentic-feeling shots of walking through the woods, resting up, etc., in addition to a worrisome increase in the hero’s asthmatic wheezing. His post-battle execution is as lovingly dragged out as any screen staging of the Crucifixion. Richard Fleischer’s average-sized 1969 film of the same name, minus the Part One and Part Two but plus an exclamation point, with Omar Sharif and Jack Palance as Guevara and Castro, was doubtless a Hollywood travesty, but that at least made it somewhat fun. (Jack Palance by his lonesome makes anything somewhat fun.) Soderbergh’s corrective is no travesty and no fun. Walter Salles’s 2004 film on Guevara’s formative years, The Motorcycle Diaries, might have been thought to act as an appetizer, but only the glutton will be in it for the full feast.
Two Lovers, opening at the Hillcrest this Friday, has been rather overwhelmed by the advance announcement that its star, Joaquin Phoenix, is hereupon retiring from acting to pursue a career in hip-hop. It is a movie easily overwhelmed, an intimate little indie directed and co-written by James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night, both with the selfsame Phoenix), about a suicidal jilted suitor who has moved back home with his parents in Brighton Beach and toils by day in their dry-cleaning store. In aid of his recovery, they try to set him up with a business associate’s nice, sweet, kind daughter (the Hilary Swank-y Vinessa Shaw), whose professed favorite movie is The Sound of Music. “That is a good movie,” he allows. “Underrated.” But he, for his part, only has eyes for Trouble: the “completely fucked-up” drug-abusing girl next door (Gwyneth Paltrow), or more exactly girl upstairs and across the courtyard, who is deep in an affair with a married man. The simple story, a tony takeoff on Dostoevski’s often-filmed White Nights, doesn’t have far to go and takes a long, slow time to get there. Phoenix’s striking discomfort in the leading role — the adolescent awkwardness in his body, the Herculean effort of speaking clearly and audibly — inevitably raises the question of whether his discomfort is the character’s or the actor’s. Either way, it works in the role, but the question is a distraction.
The revival of Fellini’s Amarcord at the Ken Cinema for a week starting Friday, so close on the heels of the revival there of Truffaut’s Wild Child, will receive less of a hurrah from me. A prominent film of a prominent filmmaker, sure, but of all his couple of dozen films, this one from 1973 would not have been high on my list of ones to re-see. (I am still waiting to see for the first time The Voice of the Moon, his unimported swan song.) But that’s what DVDs are for — are they not? See whatever you want whenever you want. In the interests of future revivals, I hope that if this Fellini is high on your own list of Fellinis, or if you have never yet seen it, you’ll seize the opportunity.
With dates of March 12 through 22, the San Diego Latino Film Festival, sixteenth annual, is now near enough to begin to kindle excitement. I myself am excited about Carlos Saura’s Fados, which looks to solidify further the Spaniard’s standing as the unlikeliest custodian of the movie musical. The schedule also notably includes the newest work of Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas, Silent Light. A personal recommendation from Arturo Ripstein in the lobby of the UltraStar Mission Valley at last year’s festival motivated me finally to watch my DVD of that director’s Battle in Heaven from three festivals ago. Its mix of formal rigor and clinical detachment on the one hand, tabloid crime and snatches of hardcore sex on the other, proved to be provocative to say the least. I recognize a few other names, without aversion, from past festivals as well: Daniel Burman, of Family Law, back with Empty Nest, and Fernando Eimbcke, of Duck Season, back with Lake Tahoe, and Carlos Sorin, of El Camino de San Diego, back with La Ventana. But I must admit I always have a hard time absorbing the program online: www.sdlatinofilm.com. (Only in cyberspace could it seem sensible to alphabetize filmmakers by their first names.) I’m certain to have an easier time with the printed catalogue. Even then, the predominant excitement will be the excitement of the unknown.
I have complained in private and probably in print that the Oscar show set about mucking up its “In Memoriam” segment once it broadened the field beyond screen presences to those off the screen. This year I suspend my complaints for the inclusion of Manny Farber, Film Critic.