The first time I saw Steven Soderbergh’s magnum opus, his enormous two-part biopic/investigation of Argentine doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s revolutionary life, I think I must have been a bit underwhelmed. In retrospect it’s probably significantly to the film’s benefit that it avoids the preachiness of most Hollywood biopics, and certainly avoids some of the moralising traps of other Soderbergh films. It’s hardly a revolutionary picture itself, though, and feels overly interested in pastiching period news footage in the scenes from NYC in 1964, with grainy black-and-white, off-centre close-up framings, nervous handheld camerawork and on-screen captions that mimic exactly the font of those old burned-in subtitles you used to see in footage. In other words, you wonder at times if it was more about the technical challenge than capturing the man, and certainly contemporaneous accounts invested a lot in the digital technology Soderbergh was using. But yet at its heart I feel as if this is quite an earnest project. Guevara isn’t the hero of the kind you see on the famous poster images, but just a man amongst many others (and women, too, as we see in the guerrilla armies he forms and leads) trying to make a positive change to a country mired in corruption, no thanks to US involvement. Soderbergh is hardly interested in digging deep into the politics, but just by focusing on Guevara, Castro and the others there’s a gentle sense of solidarity with those holding these revolutionary ideals and the dream of a future forged in training camps in the jungles and skirmishes on the streets.
Moving on a few years for the second half of this epic, it’s clearly possible to see how it works in tandem with the first part. That film presented revolutionary ideology and practice with the stylistic flash of, say, the contemporary New Wave cinemas of the era, as Guevara worked alongside his fellows in Cuba in the late-1950s, intercut with interviews and speeches at the UN in 1964. This part takes a quite different tack, going for more of a handheld observational style, using a muted colour palette that really downplays the lushness of the highland setting, as Guevara faces up to the reality of the struggle in Bolivia in 1967. If the first was a film about glory, this is a film mostly about disappointment and failure. Its episodic march of time, numbered by the days Guevara has spent in country, sees his people slowly picked off, their deaths really just captured in passing or off-screen, as the action follows increasingly bearded men messing around in the hills, trying to win over the local people and with a mounting sense of desperation. There’s nothing glorious here, but there’s a certain fascination to Che’s resolve, even as he’s battered by asthma and poor discipline from the forces he’s trying to lead. Perhaps by design, but it feels almost underwhelming after the first part, a corrective perhaps but a sad one.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Che: Part One (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen (based on the non-fiction work Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria cubana [Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War] by Ernesto Guevara); Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Demián Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Julia Ormond; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 13 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).
Che: Part Two (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen; Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Franka Potente, Gastón Pauls, Lou Diamond Phillips; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Monday 17 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).
It’s that period between Christmas and New Year so it’s time for me to post up reviews of my other favourite films of the year, as most of them will be making it into my best of the year list. One recent release is the latest film from Leos Carax, which has plenty of people hating it, and other passionate fans. I’ve never really been into Sparks, though Edgar Wright’s documentary earlier in the year helped me to get my bearings, but I enjoy their arch orchestral pop music and it fits very nicely into this grand folly of a film. That’s exactly the kind of film Carax makes, though, when he does turn his hand to it (his last was 2012’s equally absurd, equally grand, equally green Holy Motors), so I’m not complaining. There are long stretches where it doesn’t work, even is a little bit dull (I find myself unable to warm to Adam Driver’s character for example), but right from that bravura coup de cinéma opening sequence, when the film does spark, it really has no equal in the rest of cinema.
This certainly reads from the reviews as if it’s a love it or hate it sort of film, and I can see why, but that’s always been the case with Leos Carax’s films I feel. That said, its curious blend of self-awareness and anti-naturalism starts right from the opening number (“So May We Start?”), so you should get a good sense pretty quickly if it’s not for you, but it feels to me a bit like La La Land if that film had properly committed to the emotions. Both films have a sort of emptiness to them at their core, too, but this feels like a stylistic choice, about two people who want some meaning in life but can’t ever get beyond the surface level, never doing much more than saying what they think they should feel rather than actually feeling it. And so having a child who’s a puppet feels like a perfect expression of this abyss (“A-B-Y-S-S”, Henry even spells it out). It’s a film filled with affect, beautiful shots that seem bravura (early on we get Henry’s hands coming in from the side of the frame threateningly towards Ann’s neck before veering into an embrace almost imperceptibly) that turn out to be cleverly foreshadowing, a bold use of colour (green, usually), and those Sparks songs which just grind the themes down until they feel a little bit fresh. Look, I can’t pretend it all worked, but (Adam Driver aside) it’s exactly the kind of thing I love to see on the screen, an ideal showcase for a grand folly of self-indulgence.
Director Leos Carax; Writers Ron Mael and Russell Mael; Cinematographer Caroline Champetier; Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Devyn McDowell; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 2 October 2021.
Some films are made for film festivals, and none more so than any given new film by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Some of them have becoming (surprisingly) modest arthouse hits, like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Memoria is very much in a similar mould, with lush jungle terrains (here in Colombia) and a slow, mysterious narrative that seems to promise both naturalism and also science-fiction and fantasy at times. The central investigation may recall Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, in being based around a mysterious sonic fragment, but there’s little else that recalls mainstream narrative cinema, and Tilda Swinton is looking strangely ordinary here as she searches for… something.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul proves that even making a film largely in English and set in Colombia, he’s still able to make exactly the kinds of films he makes, which is to say slow, somnolent and oblique. As with Cemetery of Splendour I nodded off a little at times (to be fair that one was a film about people with some kind of sleeping sickness), but it felt like part of the artistic process, a durational one, about a woman who seems to be searching for the source of a mysterious sound. That search takes her to various specialists (real or imagined?), and to a small village in the mountains, and those shots of ruins and lush vegetation seem very much of a piece with his most famous works. I think in many ways Memoria extends those themes, with some surprising additions that never exactly serve to make clear what’s been going on, but instead intensify and deepen the mystery. But that’s often the way. This had me fascinated and I loved the slow rhythms of it, but it danced nimbly away from explaining itself. Undoubtedly both this and the pacing will madden many of its potential viewers, but it’s an experience in being open to the possibilities of narrative.
Director/Writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล; Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom สยมภู มุกดีพร้อม; Starring Tilda Swinton, Jeanne Balibar, Elkin Díaz; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 18 November 2021.
I’ve reviewed documentaries of every type seen so far during Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, but this one breaks the mould a little bit by incorporating fictional restaged elements. It’s all very cannily done by a seasoned documentarian, but it’s a beautiful film that deserves a wider audience.
This film starts out with the feel of a documentary about a chef in NYC but then slips between various time periods in the childhood and early-20s of the same man growing up in small town Mexico. The struggles he has with same-sex attraction and holding down a relationship under the judgemental eyes of his family and those in the community around him have a certain familiarity, but are handled very beautifully here. Part of that is from the way the film surprisingly blends fictional narrative and documentary, becoming evident later in the film, and which deepens the richness of the 80s and 90s-set sections. It all makes sense as a move on the part of a long-time documentary filmmaker, and it certainly makes me intrigued to see more of what she produces, as this film has a very polished, gracious and beautifully shot sense of atmospherics with a slight touch of Malick at times.
Director Heidi Ewing; Writers Ewing and Alan Page Arriaga; Cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez; Starring Armando Espitia, Christian Vázquez; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Monday 8 November 2021.
I must have first watched this 25 years ago, and for all its short length (a mere 45 minutes, apparently intended as just one segment of the then-popular portmanteau film format), I still vividly recall Satan giving a hefty kick to a small lamb as it bleatingly disappeared to the upper-right of the frame. Well, that’s still there and it’s still funny, but around it is a coruscatingly bitter attack on religious pomposity, as our titular figure stands like his dad Simeon Stylites on a pillar in the desert. He sets himself up as some kind of holier-than-thou religious martyr but really he seems pretty pleased to be revered and accepts those who confirm him in this belief. Meanwhile, for all his high-minded ideals, he finds himself pretty easily tempted by the Devil (who appears as a woman, of course). Buñuel was hardly averse to pricking at the hypocrisy of religious figures, but the medium-length running time means it never outstays its welcome.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Julio Alejandro; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Claudio Brook, Silvia Pinal; Length 45 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 11 September 2021 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, July 1998).
It’s difficult to imagine from the plot summary how this is going to play out, given the set-up is fairly thin: a bourgeois group of high society socialities go for a slap-up dinner after the opera and find themselves unable to leave the home they’re in. But Buñuel, of course, knows what he’s doing, and mixes jabs at the aristocrats, at complacent bourgeois values, and at the church itself (the ending is bitterly directed and something he developed further in Simon of the Desert and Viridiana, amongst other works). It’s a psychological horror of sorts, at least in the way its structured: there’s an invisible force seeming to prevent them from leaving, but this seems to be a deeply-ingrained sense of decorum. At the end it feels like they are able to leave when the correct formula of words is uttered: the entrapment is very much a social one, as everyone is constrained by their own sense of what’s allowed, what’s considered polite, and it’s that in the end which is their tragedy, the pathetic sadness of this entire class of people. It’s all beautifully acted and staged, and ends up — in a low-key way — being perhaps Buñuel’s strongest film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Luis Buñuel; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 18 August 1999 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1999, and most recently on YouTube streaming at home, Wellington, Sunday 12 September 2021).
I didn’t really expect much going into this, perhaps something a bit well-meaning and earnest, like contemporary Costa-Gavras films or those of John Sayles — which to be fair, is really quite deeply unfair to the latter’s work, but I’m trying to convey that sense of slightly po-faced political dramas about ordinary people in challenging times. In a sense, cinema since then hasn’t really grappled with those topics so much, but in relation specifically to the Anglophone cinema of Latin-American politics that I’m most familiar with, Gregory Nava’s feature has a more poetic register. This isn’t magical realism, though, it’s a poetic realism more akin to the Italian Neorealists, I think, but imbued with a lived sense of how America treats its Latin-American citizens. The central characters are indigenous people, from a small Guatemalan village, who journey to the North because of conditions back home, and who have to endure a lot to get to the very bottom of the ladder in the US. It’s not straightforwardly for or against anything though — their lives in the US do have some benefits compared to the past, but oppression comes in many guises and for all that they do see some material changes to their position, in other ways they are made to feel very much an underclass, not least in terms of the bureaucracy of immigration (and not much has changed there in almost 40 years one suspects). It’s a film that is as concretely about the conditions of work and life as anything else of the decade, but one imbued with a sense of almost mystical dread, that can be at times overwhelming but equally quite beautiful and resonant.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gregory Nava; Writers Nava and Anna Thomas; Cinematographer James Glennon; Starring David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 3 September 2021.
In a way this film by Costa-Gavras is exemplary of a certain strand of political filmmaking that flourished in the 1980s, finding a way into an epochal event through a human rights case involving (white) Americans, to make it more relatable. Interestingly, of course, the Chilean coup in 1973 that led to the death of the young American journalist Charles Horman (played here by John Shea) is so far in the background that Allende and Pinochet are barely even named, and the Chileans we see are just shady military characters with little to distinguish them. Costa-Gavras is very much more interested in focusing on the Americans involved, which makes sense given the help they gave to what was an explicitly anti-leftist and militaristic coup, aligning so well with their destabilising influence across Central and South America in this Cold War era. So we are led to see all these events, the disappearance and death of American journalists, as part of an essentially American story of silencing their own citizens as part of enacting geopolitical change that would favour their own national interests. That said, what I find frustrating about the film is just having to watch Jack Lemmon (playing Charles’s dad Ed) trying to throw his weight around and not understanding his own son’s situation, though it’s all presented as part of a learning curve for him — as someone of a certain age who implicitly trusted his own government finally understanding that he could never trust them again. His character is difficult and has trouble understanding the context, and that can just make him a little bit difficult to watch at times when it’s just variations of him going into rooms and being dismissive of his son’s wife (Sissy Spacek) and friends whenever they speak. Still, it’s a well-intentioned film that did attempt to grapple with some of this geopolitical reality at a time when Reagan had recently been elected.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Costa-Gavras Κώστας Γαβράς; Writers Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart (based on the non-fiction book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice by Thomas Hauser); Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich; Starring Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, John Shea, Melanie Mayron; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 17 July 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 2000).
Alex Cox certainly makes distinctive films. I’m not sure that they always gel with me, as I have a sort of in-built resistance to the carnivalesque and maximalist spirit he has (along with, say, Terry Gilliam). But I can’t fault Cox’s determination to bitterly present a satirical view of American involvement in central America, spurred by the contemporary exploits of such hucksters as Oliver North, and the film does everything it can to collapse one into the other. The mid-19th century setting increasingly becomes indistinguishable from the modern day as cars and helicopters, US tabloid news magazines and other anachronistic features start to become impossible to ignore. In the midst of all the pyrotechnics and madness is a very undemonstrative performance from Ed Harris, a tall blue-eyed blond man in a tailored black suit whose very stillness and composure in the midst of everything helps him stand out and grounds all the madness that swirls around him.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alex Cox; Writer Rudy Wurlitzer; Cinematographer David Bridges; Starring Ed Harris, René Auberjonois, Richard Masur, Peter Boyle, Marlee Matlin; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 7 May 2021.
Alcoholics, it turns out, are rather boring and interminable people when put on film. This one does a good job of capturing the spiral in which Albert Finney’s character Geoffrey is trapped, a consul working in a small town in Mexico just before WW2, whose wife Yvonne has apparently left him and who is not making much effort to hold himself together. He has turned, fairly heavily, to drinking, as one imagines a lot of British colonial figures have done in the past, but that really does seem to be all that defines him, as he stumbles from one bar and one encounter with some local colour to another. Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) returns one morning after the Day of the Dead festivities, and his younger brother too (Anthony Andrews), and together they hash out their various fallings-out, as things get ever more bleak for Geoffrey. There’s a lot of imagery of death — as you might imagine given the setting and festivities — which feels fairly ominous alongside the titular volcano, and it all amounts to a sort of allegory about the British abroad, which is persuasive in its way, though hardly the most fun to watch. It’s just a cavalcade of self-pity and immiseration enlivened by the setting and the fine acting.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Huston; Writer Guy Gallo (based on the novel by Malcolm Lowry); Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 26 March 2021.