Monday, December 22, 2008

December's Movie Round-Up

The following appeared in the December issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission (thanks, Trina).

In the latest edition of the Film Round-Up: Come watch three stalwarts of independent cinema fall short.

Che (Dir: Steven Soderbergh). Starring: Benicio Del Toro. Academy Award winners Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape; Traffic) and Del Toro reunite for an ambitious project--a four-hour plus biography of famed Argentine guerilla fighter Ernest "Che" Guevara. The movie is divided into two parts. Part one (The Argentine) deals with the exiled Guevara meeting Fidel Castro in Mexico and becoming a major contributor in capturing Cuba from Batista. Interspersed with Che's early days as a fighter are scenes of him visiting New York in the early 1960s, when he is now widely known for his inflammatory, revolutionary-minded speech. In part two (The Guerilla), Che vanishes from the mainstream, stealthily retreating to Bolivia to train and lead guerillas in a futile, and ultimately fatal, overthrow of the government there. The first part of the movie is the far more interesting of the two, defining Che as more than just an image printed on T-shirts worn by hipsters and graduate students. Midway through part two, as Che and his estranged soldiers wander aimlessly through the Bolivian jungle, it becomes apparent that the movie(s) don't have enough juice. There's not enough pageantry or real-life twists to justify the absurd length. Soderbergh has shown a deft, restrained touch in directing a wide variety of films (also on his Hall of Fame resume: King of the Hill, Out of Sight, and Ocean's 11) that were smart and entertaining. His subdued approach--even the action scenes are tame--doesn't work here, because an audience devoting so much time needs to be goosed, regardless of how prestigious the film's pedigree. Think The Godfather saga, Apocalypse Now, or even (though it pains me to say it) Titanic. It doesn't help that Peter Buchman's script feels like he's stretched four or five interesting facts beyond boredom, which in turn suffocates Del Toro's performance and prohibits any real chance for historical or personal insight. Considering the subject matter and talent involved, this is a major disappointment. Note: The full-length version will play for one week in New York and Los Angeles starting December 12, before re-opening in two parts January 9th, with roll outs nationwide to follow a week later. Eventually, the movie will be shown on-demand. R *

Synecdoche, New York (Dir: Charlie Kaufman). Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest. For his directorial debut, Kaufman, the acclaimed writer of Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, offers a nearly incomprehensible and pretentious feat of endurance. As the life of a small-town theater director (Hoffman) unravels through the years--bouts with illness, two divorces, and the deaths of loved ones--he uses everything as a basis to put on an epic, life-mirroring play that destroys the line between fiction and fact. Kaufman's vivid, out there storytelling is often cited as an asset in his scripts when it's really used to dress up simple life lessons. In Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman runs the show, and he goes hog wild, offering a string of increasingly bizarre and pseudo-philosophical scenes that are supposed to wow the audience with their audacity. Instead, they obliterate whatever truths Kaufman wants to espouse on life, death, art, and (brace yourself) Hoffman's character's bloody stool. A great cast is wasted in this extended bout of creative masturbation. R *

Zach and Miri Make a Porno (Dir: Kevin Smith). Starring: Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Craig Robinson, Jeff Anderson, Jason Mewes, Katie Morgan, Traci Lords, Justin Long, Brandon Routh. With a mountain of unpaid bills and eviction imminent, two destitute best friends and roommates (Rogen, Banks) swallow their pride, push down their shame, and make a low-budget smut movie in the hopes of making some big cash. In the process, the duo makes some new friends with special talents (including former porn star Lords and current starlet Morgan) while their own friendship enters unfamiliar territory. Writer/director/New Jersey cinematic god Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy) once again reveals the soul of the working class, but the sarcastic, straightforward edge that cemented his reputation is absent. His latest movie is really a generic, poorly constructed love story (with an ending you can see coming from a mile away) garnished with liberal doses of nudity and salty language. Only Banks' charismatic, winning performance prevents the movie from being a complete waste of time. Not Smith's finest moment, but at least it's better than Jersey Girl. R *

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