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Cannes '08: Critics size up Soderbergh's 'Che'

Benicio del Toro and Steven Soderbergh pose for 'Che' at Cannes

It is not unusual for Cannes audiences to have the privilege of viewing directors' unfinished films and rough assemblies in the festival's official selections.

Wong Kar Wai's "Blueberry Nights" and Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales" both bounced from the South of France back into the edit bay. And for a director bored or overwhelmed by a mass of footage that doesn't seem to contain a natural dramatic or character arc, perhaps airing a test screening on a global stage can provide a motivational boost or a justification for an indefinite shelving.

Whatever the case, we can only hope the sprawling heap of Red ONE footage that "Che" director Steven Soderbergh allowed to be shown at Cannes last night is destined to be shaped into something magical someday. It's not like Soderbergh doesn't have the phone numbers of editors Stephen Mirrione ("Traffic") or Anne V. Coates ("Out of Sight," "Erin Brockovich"). It's more a matter of whether he chooses to use them.

In the meantime, a few critics have generously donated their "Che" observations for Soderbergh to consider:

Updated:

William Booth, Washington Post:
Comrades, it is our duty to report: There were deserters.
Traitors! Too weak to sustain the continued emotional investment necessary to survive the long, tragic, long, doomed Bolivian campaign of Benicio Del Toro in Part 2 of "Che." The most highly anticipated movie of the Cannes Film Festival took a heavy toll. The premiere got underway at 6:46 p.m. and ended at 11:25 p.m. Upon seeing on the screen the words "Day 328," a faint moan could be heard in our section. But the struggle will continue. It must. Soderbergh does not yet have an American buyer for his film. Distribution or death!

Todd McCarthy, Variety:

No doubt it will be back to the drawings board for “Che,” Steven Soderberghs intricately ambitious, defiantly nondramatic four-hour, 18-minute presentation of scenes from the life of revolutionary icon Che Guevara. If the director has gone out of his way to avoid the usual Hollywood biopic conventions, he has also withheld any suggestion of why the charismatic doctor, fighter, diplomat, diarist and intellectual theorist became and remains such a legendary figure; if anything, Che seems diminished by the way he’s portrayed here. ... Neither half feels remotely like a satisfying stand-alone film, while the whole offers far too many aggravations for its paltry rewards.

Allan Hunter, Screen Daily:

"Che" exhibits a bracing confidence in the intelligence of the audience. It makes no concessions to anyone unfamiliar with the events or period it depicts. The five-hour running time (including an intermission) will seem a daunting hill to climb for many. ... The lengthy, detailed depiction of the setbacks Che met in Bolivia makes the second film more of an endurance test. Inevitably, the incremental journey towards success in Film 1 is much more enthralling than the slow unraveling of hope in Bolivia, especially when much of the physical and visual detail of the guerrilla-style jungle warfare, doubts and disappointments begin to feel very familiar and repetitive.

Glenn Kenny, IndieWire:
"Che" benefits greatly from certain Soderberghian qualities that don't always serve his other films well, e.g., detachment, formalism, and intellectual curiosity. ... (What Soderbergh) gives us here is not exactly a hagiography, even as it acknowledges the fact that 99.9 percent of the time covered in these movies, Che was the coolest guy in the room. ... And Benicio del Toro, despite being 10  real years older than anybody playing the part in any period should be (and in fairness to him, let's note that this has been a very LONG gestating process; the original plan had Terence Malick directing with Soderbergh producing, and that was many years ago), works almost demonically at making Che's appeal palpable. But his performance is just a remarkable cog in Soderbergh's meticulous examination of process. Both parts of the film are largely about revolution as a job of work.

Farah Nayeri, Bloomberg.com
:
Soderbergh's excessive focus on everyday guerrilla life sometimes misses the big picture, even though this type of warfare is by nature small-scale. In the film notes, the director explains that he is "fascinated by the technical challenges that go along with implementing any large-scale political idea,'' and that his aim is to "detail the mental and physical demands'' involved in the Cuban and Bolivian campaigns.

Roger Friedman, Fox News
:
... in all those hours, no subplots develop among the other characters. Not one of them is particularly drawn out or filled in. At many points in the action –- many shootouts, skirmishes, etc. — you can’t figure out who’s who, whom they’re fighting, or why they’re against each other. No sympathies are built for any of the characters. It’s literally a film in which there is no one to root for. At this enormous length, that’s not good.

-- Sheigh Crabtree

Photo: Actor Benicio del Toro and director Steven Soderbergh at the Cannes photocall for "Che." Wire Image.

 
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The lengthy, detailed depiction of the setbacks Che met in Bolivia makes the second film more of an endurance test. Inevitably, the incremental journey towards success in Film 1 is much more enthralling than the slow unraveling of hope in Bolivia,


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