Saturday, June 27, 2009


Last year, one of my most anticipated films was Steven Soderbergh's Che. Being a fan of Soderbergh, I was very interested in seeing what he would do with a biopic. Would he make it unconventional, and turn it in to one of his "stranger" indie flicks (Schizopolis, Bubble)? Or would he turn in a normal film and go for a large distribution (the Ocean's series, although none of his films are really "traditional.")

Considering Che's length (the film clocks in at around 4 hours) the latter seemed somewhat impossible, and the film's audience was shifted to the arthouse when it was picked up by IFC, one of the few distributors with any balls out there (it was, after all, the only one to consider Lars von Trier's Antichrist.)
But now that the film is on DVD, anyone can see it, not just those living in New York or LA. Che lands somewhere in the middle of Soderbergh's "weird" and "normal" films. It's the best film thus far to be made about Che Guavara. The first part of the film, The Argentine, shifts between Che's and Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution and their brief time in America. Part two, Guerilla, documents Che's involvement in the Bolivian Revolution. Both parts are essential to each other, and should be watched and considered as a whole, not two separate films.

Benicio del Toro had some early Oscar buzz for his portrayal of the revolutionary. He's magnificent in the title role, the rare performance that fully embodies such a well-known and polarizing figure. His performance, as well as Soderbergh's direction, are not biased in or out of favor with the man. The film remains neutral, unlike the living Che-boner The Motorcycle Diaries (which is actually a really good film.)

Unfortunately, del Toro's performance went unnoticed by the Academy when Che shot completely under the radar. If you've got 4 hours to spend, give Che a watch. But if not, at least check out The Girlfriend Experience. If you live in New York or LA, that is...

CHE : A-

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Gambler

"You're crazy!" says Axel Freed's girlfriend in one scene of The Gambler. "But I'm blessed," he responds. He is about to make a risky move in a high stakes game of blackjack. The tension builds. Sweat drips down Freed's brow. The dealer lays down the card and... 21. A lucky draw, something Freed isn't used to.

It's this attitude of needing risks to feel alive that has Axel Freed in over his head in debt, $44,000 to be exact. If he can't come up with the money soon, the dangerous loan sharks he's gotten himself entangled with might kill him, or worse go after his family.

James Caan plays Axel Freed, a troubled teacher and gambling addict in Karel Reisz's 1974 drama The Gambler. Caan appears in every scene, every frame almost, of the film. His performance is amazing and made even more so considering the fact that Caan was battling a cocaine addiction during shooting.

The film was one of the many forgotten gems of the New Hollywood era. Soon after the Hayes Code was dissolved, American filmgoers were eager for more raw films with tougher subject matter than they were used to. Films like Easy rider and Bonnie & Clyde satisfied their thirst, while many films, The Gambler included, got pushed aside in the process.

Karel Reisz, who also directed The French Lieutenant's Wife and the excellent Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, keeps a steady eye on Axel Freed. The film is dark and gritty, yet entertaining, and Caan's performance is eminently watchable.

The Gambler is a character study above all else. The battle against gambling Axel Freed deals with on-screen is mirrored by Caan's off-screen personal demons. Another sad case of art imitating life.

The fake character, however, doesn't really want to give up gambling. Although he acknowledges that it's a problem, he loves the risk. He only truly feels alive when his livlihood is at stake. He's not in it for the game. In his eyes, everything in life is a game. He gambles for the rush of it, just to feel something. He's willing to take the risk to get that rush, unfortunatly hurting everyone around him and the ones he loves in the process.


This month's CINEASTES review has been hosted by Josh Wiebe at Octopus Cinema (

Monday, June 8, 2009

Wendy & Lucy

Wendy and Lucy is American neo-realist filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s latest addition to the movement, and her follow up to the acclaimed Old Joy. Wendy and Lucy stars Michelle Williams as Wendy Carroll, a young woman traveling to Alaska in search of work. Her only companion is her dog Lucy. Wendy faces challenges along the way (lack of money, broken car, etc.), but the worst of her setbacks is the loss of Lucy, who disappears somewhere along their journey.

Lucy’s disappearance is the main point of the purposefully simple plot. The film is not plot-driven; it’s a character film that’s really about the infinite search for the American dream.

Michelle Williams is amazing as Wendy. Her performance was one of last year’s best: naturalistic, youthful. She’s an easy actress to fall in love with.

Wendy and Lucy is, like Old Joy, a meditative and thoughtful film. Unlike Old Joy, however, this one never really meanders. There’s always something going on. I think that with time, Wendy and Lucy will be looked back on as a key film in the American Neorealist movement.


Thursday, June 4, 2009



Last year’s Oscar-nominated film Doubt stars Meryl Streep as a nun who accuses a pastor (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) of molesting a child at their Catholic parish. Quite the taboo topic, and one not spoken about enough in movies. Doubt is one of last year’s most thought-provoking films. It left me thinking about it long after I left the theater.

John Patrick Shanley, the director of the film, adapted it to the screen from his own stage production. The movie, at times, feels like it would be a bit more adept for the stage, but that’s not necessarily a detrimental remark. I just mean that its dialogue drives it. At last year’s Oscars, it was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. I think it should’ve won.

The script wouldn’t have worked, however, if it were not for the performances. Oh, the performances. What a glorious cast! Meryl Streep is, as always, brilliant as the suspicious Sister Aloysius. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is, as always, stunning and natural as the accused Father Flynn. Amy Adams is, as always, wonderful as Sister James, the one caught in the middle of the two. All three of them were nominated for Oscars for their performances here, as was Viola Davis for her great but brief role as the boy’s mother.

I don’t only love the film for its script and acting, though. I love it for its ambiguousness. At the end of the film, we are never told whether Father Flynn committed the evil acts he has been accused of or not. We are left with a broken sister Aloysius crying on the shoulder of Sister James, questioning her own suspicions. Was Flynn guilty? Was Aloysius right to accuse him? Was she right to destroy his life and have him removed from the parish? We don’t know. We must decide for ourselves.