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Toronto International Film Festival 2008: Che, Achilles and the Tortoise, & The Hurt Locker

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Toronto International Film Festival 2008: <em>Che</em>, <em>Achilles and the Tortoise</em>, & <em>The Hurt Locker</em>

Che: If The Motorcycle Diaries shrunk the figure of Ernesto “Che” Guevara into an easily consumable plush-doll for rebellion, Steven Soderbergh’s immensely anticipated epic trains a cooler head and a sharper eye on the controversial leader. Beginning with Guevara’s decision in 1955 to join the Cuban Revolution to overthrow the Batista regime and ending with his execution in 1967 (with strategic jumps and omissions in between), the film proceeds as two mammoth analytical blocks fused into a nearly five-hour narrative. Part one alternates between the movement’s guerilla tactics in Cuba’s lush jungles and black-and-white views of Che’s early-1960s New York tour; part two traces Che’s ultimately fatal insurrective attempt in Bolivia, during which trees and skies are bled of their colors as the flame of revolution slowly dissipates. Despite the rigorous, structuralist approach Soderbergh employs to sidestep the incense-burning pitfalls of the standard Hollywood biopic, and despite many stylistic marvels and Benicio del Toro’s drugged-tiger performance, this is a work of intelligent fastidiousness rather than vivid inspiration. No other biopic would dare overlay El Comandante’s Tolstoy quotes on a brutal skirmish, but who knew such bold experimentation could be so…academic?

Achilles and the Tortoise: Takeshi Kitano in a contemplative, pretty-but-is-it-art mood. The titular Zeno paradox (presented in anime form) segues into a Dickensian opening, as Machisu paints impulsively through his parents’ suicide, his uncle’s harshness, and his schoolmates’ cruelty. As a young man enrolled in art school, he mopes through a panoply of canvases, and the few paintings that aren’t bluntly rejected are sold behind his back. Finally, sporting the same artiste bonnet when pushing 60 (now played by Kitano himself), Machisu slogs from one experimental stunt to another, with his devoted wife (Kanako Higuchi) by his side and his manager’s advice ringing in his ears (“Try something more unique”). Combining fulsome sentimentality, bizarre gags and deep pockets of loathing, this grim comedy is not so much a Japanese version of Art School Confidential as Kitano’s own private Synecdoche, New York. Both films purport to visualize their auteurs’ minds and instead come closer to visualizing their rectums, but Kitano’s navel-gazing is at least funnier and more inventive than Kaufman’s in its meditation on an elusive art form that may finally be, as one character puts it, nothing more than “a hoax.”

The Hurt Locker: As Manny Farber once wrote of Howard Hawks, Kathryn Bigelow “landscapes action.” Focusing on a group of men in crisis, she’s near the top of her form in this tense account of a U.S. bomb-defusing squad stationed in Baghdad trying to stay in one piece until the rotation deadline. The soldiers at its center (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geragthy) never become more than ciphers, which is fitting for characters who seem to vanish into high-pressure professionalism as they cut wires or wait for the perfect shot in the middle of a sniper showdown. Bigelow works a sense of tremor into scene after scene, and her combination of handheld vérité and aesthetized slow-mo is often ravishing: The opening sequence, in which a desert detonation gets splintered into micro visions of rising dust, rust scrapped off an auto carcass, and their effect on the human face, could be released as a short film. Critique of the movie’s lack of any sort of political stance is certainly valid, yet Bigelow’s cinematic swagger ensured that at least one cinephile left the festival on a high, visceral note.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.