The Press Herald’s Justin Ellis and I run down the week’s new releases (9/8/09)

In this week’s discussion of new release on DVD, Videoport Jones and I must ask ourselves the tough questions. Is Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” worth sitting through for almost five hours? Is our love of Amy Poehler blinding us to “Parks and Recreation” ‘s flaws? Can you love Jason Statham too much?


Videoport Jones: “You’ve gotta love Steven Soderbergh.  Bursting out of the gate with a surprise hit indie (back when ‘indie’ meant something) in ‘Sex, Lies, and Videotape,’ then nearly destroyed when his next three projects undeservedly tanked (check out ‘Kafka,’ ‘The Underneath,’ and the loony, indescribable ‘Schizopolis’), before ascending to irrevocable A-List status with Hollywood gold (‘Out of Sight,’ ‘Erin Brockovich,’ the whole ‘Oceans’ franchise), Soderbergh has steadfastly refused to play it safe, peppering his filmography with challenging, decidedly noncommercial films like ‘The Limey,’ ‘Full Frontal,’ ‘Bubble’ and now this:  a four-and-three-quarter hour, Spanish language biopic about a still-controversial, unabashedly anti-American (or, more accurately, anti-imperialist) Cuban guerilla leader.  Wikipedia’s entry on ‘indie cred’ should have his picture in it; in fact, I think I’ll go add that right now.  There.  Now onto the film.

images-4‘Che’ (released on DVD in two more easily-digestible halves) follows Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s journey from political but respectable doctor in Batista-era Cuba, to guerilla fighter and revolutionary, to UN delegate for Castro’s new Cuban society, back to jungle revolutionary, trying to export the Cuban example to the rest of Latin America, and it is unfailingly gripping throughout, thanks equally to Soderbergh’s tightly-paced direction and, especially, Benicio del Toro’s never-less-than-magnetic lead performance.

As anyone who sells hipster t-shirts can tell you, Che Guevara is still an influential figure; his perceived purity of humanist revolution continues to resonate with would-be revolutionaries (with, of course, the money to buy t-shirts with his visage), and Soderbergh’s film, while unflinchingly depicting the guerilla (or ‘terrorist’ attacks), executions, and other undeniably-violent acts he engaged in in his quest for a socialist revolution, is unquestionably admiring of the man.  Educated, courageous, steadfast, and unwavering in his attempts to create a Latin American society free from the (historically-undeniable) predations of American-led capitalism (or imperialism, if you’d rather), del Toro’s Che is an admirably-uncompromising figure – a martyr to the ideal of ‘the people.’  In his self-sacrifice and unwillingness to give in, even to the political necessities called for by his compatriot Fidel Castro (played, with sly aplomb, by Demian Bichir), del Toro’s Che solidifies the image of the man as a true, and therefore doomed, revolutionary hero.  It’s ambitious, it’s daring, it’s sure to cause lots of juicy arguments…but it’s never, even at its daunting length, dull. Another fascinating, thought-provoking triumph from Soderbergh.”

Justin: “I’m going to take a bit of a sidebar on this flick and say this is not for everyone. Even you, my studious friend, would have to admit there are a number of roadblocks for casual audiences to watching this film. It’s almost five hours. It’s in Spanish. It pulls back the curtain of history, giving alternating glimpses at the struggles and alleged victories in a fight for freedom that a lot of Americans still don’t really understand. Hell, I love history and I’m not completely clear on all details of Guevara’s life.

Put all that together and you get for a movie that, frankly, is bound to jump OUT of your hands if you pick it up off the shelf.  Now, having said that, don’t discount this movie. Soderbergh is a meticulous storyteller and he clearly had a stark vision for this film that didn’t sugar coat or gloss over portions of Guevara’s life. His approach here feels like shades of Werner Herzog, instead of taking Klaus Kinski into the jungle he takes de Toro. If you are interested in Guevara’s life and times or Cuba’s volatile history, or if you’re a Soderbergh fan, you’ll want to rent this one.”

“Parks and Recreation

VPJ: “Amy Poehler is my girlfriend.  My wife, whom I love more than anything on this earth, understands. She might just be indulging me because I’ve never met the berserkly-divine Amy, but that’s neither here nor there. So when I heard that

She got the crazy eyes.

She got the crazy eyes.

the loony little goddess, and ‘SNL’ and ‘Upright Citizens Brigade’ veteran, had been cast as the lead in a faux-documentary sitcom from the creator of the (US version of) ‘The Office,’ I was, well, dippy with excitement.  And when I watched the show, where Amy plays the desperately-optimistic minor bureaucrat taking on the seemingly-insurmountable task of turning an abandoned building site into a town park, I was…slightly less dippy with excitement.

Like ‘The Office,’ the show is inhabited by a collection of improv-adept characters and trucks in uncomfortable faux pas, and, like ‘The Office,’ the first season didn’t quite find its tone right out of the gate; sometimes, the goings-on are more squirmy than funny, and the characterizations veer more towards caricature, with the heroine’s self-deluded quest for political clout playing as desperate and mean.  But think about the first season of ‘The Office’ – it’s the one season I don’t routinely re-watch, and it’s largely for the same reasons, as it took some time for the show’s writers and actors to refine and shade in the characters.  And that show has become an undeniable classic of American TV.

Will ‘Parks and Recreation?’ I think it will. Surrounding my girlfriend Amy Poehler, the show can boast some really promising comic actors, with the cute-as-a-bug Rashida Jones (as the show’s Jim Halpert figure, shooting the camera bemused looks at Amy’s antics), ‘Human Giant’s’ Aziz Ansari (hilariously weird as Amy’s impishly horndog officemate), and, surprisingly enough, talented indie actor Paul Schneider (from David Gordon Green’s ‘George Washington’ and ‘All the Real Girls’) showing some serious comic charisma as the twinklingly-competent city planner who decides to help Amy’s quixotic quest, at least partly for his own amusement. And (gradually, but surely, even by the end of this season) Amy’s Leslie Knope becomes, as Michael Scott did, a tragically touching comic figure as the series goes on. Her over-her-headedly ambitious would-be political role model is less a figure of fun and more an empathetic, if, sure, ridiculous heroine. I’m willing to give this one the time it needs.”

JE: “I’m really glad you said that. We share many common loves, and among them, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are only second to Joss Whedon. I felt we might have to have an uncomfortable chat about this show, which, as you said, is still very rough around the edges. To be completely honest, I’m not 100 percent sold on it just yet, not just because it hasn’t found its footing, but because I’m not sure if ‘The Office’ model has any more legs. But I’ll be damned if my love for Amy Poehler does not cloud that. Also feeding that cloud is my love for Aziz, who, if you don’t know him, you should. Shame on you. Also, let’s not forget to credit the funny Aubrey Plaza (seen this summer in ‘Funny People’ along with Aziz) as the apathetic office intern.

There is plenty of room to grow here and with a cast crackling with improv talent I think they could do fine. And as someone who has covered local government, let’s just say that there is plenty of uncharted territory there for comedy.”

“The Office” – Season 5

VPJ: “And speaking of … What more do you guys need to know about this show to make you rent it?  Ummm … well, it’s still hilarious, and often improbably moving.  Jim and Pam are still adorable (even their relationship troubles are endearing). Michael’s still incomparably Michael. I will say that season 5 throws some interesting, unexpected twists at you, the guest stars are most welcome (Idris Elba and Amy Ryan of ‘The Wire’), and the supporting gang gets some most welcome increased screen time (personal faves Andy, Oscar, and Stanley shine, especially).  I’v already bought mine, because I know I’ll rewatch it into oblivion, but Videoport’s got many rental copies for you. Just rent it already. You know you want to.”

JE: “We were talking about this just the other day and the thing that stands out to me is that the show is operating on all cylinders again, where the writing is unpredictable, the performances are hilarious and touching, and Steve Carell walks a shrinking tightrope between believability and ludicrousness as Michael Scott. This show is at its best when it grabs you and make you want to cringe and cover your eyes … but you can’t look away. I can’t think of many sitcoms that do that. This season gives us so many great parts, especially the menacing (and funny) Elba as well as the formation of ‘The Michael Scott Paper Company.’ If you didn’t watch, I’ll let you consider the quickest route to Videoport to find out what that last bit means.”

“Crank 2: High Voltage

VPJ: “Umm … didn’t that guy die in the first movie? Like, plummeting from a helicopter whilst having a massive neural shutdown? I’m almost sure I recall that… Well, taking a page from the old movie serials, this nascent action franchise once again stars bullet-headed British torpedo Jason Statham, escaping from clearly-depicted certain death, as a guy who, this time, has a transplanted heart that needs regular electric shocks so he can stay alive and kick enough people in the face for things to turn out okay.  But I kid a guy who could cheerfully head butt me into next Tuesday. I like Statham – his charmingly-uncouth thug action hero is most welcome in the prettyboy-strewn hallways of action Hollywood, and reviving him, however ludicrously, for another go ‘round in this cheerily-stupid series, well … why not, I guess.”

What're ya' gonna do?  The guy likes punchin'...

What're ya' gonna do? The guy likes punchin'...

JE: “And now he’s BACK AND BETTER THAN EVAH! I think we can just both agree Statham is on a special list reserved for actors we’ll watch no matter what? I mean, I found myself watching a part of the original ‘Crank’ one night if only to see how he kicks the next guy in the face. Same goes with ‘The Transporter 2.’ I also think it’s good we both have given up on the whole ‘he needs to pull some respectable flicks on his resume’ argument. Just like a bar after Statham walks through, this guy’s career is littered with ridiculous (and cheesy) action movies. He seems to embody some weird sort of macho-charisma-face-kicking magic that captivates guys like us. In fact they should make “macho-charisma-face-kicking magic” a Vitamin Water flavor exclusively made for and marketed by Statham. And I would buy it.”

“Valentino: The Last Emperor

VPJ: “As a guy whose daily uniform consists of a Red Sox jersey and some tatty Chuck Taylors, I am, perhaps the worst nightmare of the titular subject of this fashion documentary about that guy who makes all the pretty, pretty clothes. However, I am told this is as interesting as a clothing documentary can possibly be.”

JE: “Now be fair, old chum. I have seen you in a suit and you clean up nicely. Valentino  would be proud. Let me preface my words by saying this: I like clothes. I like suits. As Barney Stinson would say, I like ‘suiting-up.’ No man did this better than the Italian fashion icon and designer who has been creating couture for more than 40 years.

This documentary, ostensibly about the life and times of Valentino, is a rare inside look into the man’s life, his creative thinking and changes to the world of fashion. I don’t think you have to be a fashion fiend to be interested in  watching an Italian iconoclast jet set and live the fab life, do you?”

Finally, also on the shelves of Videoport this week: Two new films from French masters: “A Girl Cut in Two” (from Claude Chabrol) and “Roman da Gare” (from Claude Lelouche), “Rescue Me” – Season 5, “Harpers Island,” “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” – Season 1, and a lot more.

Parting shots:

– South American politics? Subtitles? Four hours? Will you watch “Che?”
– Has ‘The Office’ finally eclipsed its British predecessor?
– What makes Jason Statham so watchable?

Published in: on September 8, 2009 at 7:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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