Saturday, January 31, 2009

Review - Valkyrie

The advance word on Valkyrie has been so toxic it comes as something of a relief to report that the film is nothing like the disaster many people were anticipating with such unseemly relish. Bad publicity has dogged this production for months, which is nothing new, but it seems to me that much of the chatter surrounding Valkyrie has been of a more vindictive nature – a lot of people out there really want this film, and its star in particular, to fail big time. Admittedly, the last few years in Tom Cruise's life have been a PR disaster – with his sudden desire to spout off about Scientology at all times presumably being behind the groundswell of negativity towards him – but aside from that, I still can't help liking the guy. He's a good actor, who can be very good; he's a genuine movie star, in an era when there are few who can make such a claim; and the commitment, focus and intensity he brings to his work is continually admirable. Whether his choices are good or bad, you never feel like you're getting less than 100% from Tom Cruise.

So, I wish I could hail Valkyrie as a cracking thriller, a vindication for its leading man against the naysayers, but unfortunately the film isn't anywhere near good enough for that. Bryan Singer's World War II drama is one to file away in that bulging folder marked "average", situated far away from the glorious and the dreadful, and the place where the majority of mainstream Hollywood product resides these days. This is a shame, because you couldn't ask for a better story – one that comes equipped with the kind of drama, intrigue and significance no writer is capable of inventing. This is the story of the plot to kill Hitler, which was carried out on July 20th 1944, and which very nearly altered the course of history. The plot was organised by a Nazi soldier, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (played by Cruise), and if their plan to assassinate the 20th century's greatest tyrant wasn't audacious enough, consider the state von Stauffenberg was in when it happened – he had one eye, a stump where his right hand should have been, and two fingers missing on his "good" hand.

The special effects and makeup team work their magic on Cruise's disfigured extremities, while he dons an eyepatch for the part, but does not don, notably, an accent. Neither does anyone else in the film, and I think this is a commendable decision on the filmmakers' part, because unless you shoot the film in German with subtitles, making your actors speak in German-accented English is no more authentic than anything else. It doesn't really affect Cruise, he's never been one to disappear into another's persona, and he simply gets on with giving the kind of display that maximises his best virtues – he imbues Stauffenberg with a determination that keeps the film ticking, while skilfully expressing his mounting anger and frustration as his ambitious dream slips from his grasp. Whatever flaws we can find in Valkyrie, they're not down to the efforts of the leading man.

Instead the blame for the film's stuttering, disappointingly nondescript rendition of this tale can be laid squarely at the feet of director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, reunited for the first time since The Usual Suspects. That twisty thriller doesn't hold up very well today, but at the time its playful way with narrative and famous climax was enough to dazzle moviegoers and win Oscars. In contrast, Valkyrie plods through its story, detailing the key elements of the assassination plot in a dutiful manner. The film opens in 1943, where Stauffenberg (possessing a full complement of fingers and eyes) is telling his diary of his hatred for Hitler, although the film doesn't delve fully into the reasons behind his stance, he simply states his feelings and we move on. After we see the dramatic attack in which Stauffenberg was maimed, Valkyrie switches to a different narrative strand, and focuses on one of the many other failed attempts on Hitler's life (there were at least 15). This one involves Kenneth Branagh, a rigged cognac bottle, and a plot to blow the Führer out of the sky, and it's a terrific little vignette, graced by neat editing and a steadily rising tension, but it's an isolated highlight in the film's stodgy opening hour.

Branagh is sidelined after the film's first third, which is a shame, as he gives one of the most assured supporting performances among the mostly British cast. Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp are solid, Eddie Izzard is never remotely convincing, and Bill Nighy is terrible (as usual), but the characterisation is slim across the board. McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander try to instil a little emotional depth into Stauffenberg's tale by including a few trite scenes of him with his family, but it feels like a token gesture when they haven't bothered to give his wife anything to do beyond looking vaguely worried (In 2006 Carice van Houten gave one of the year's great performances in Black Book, and she really should be getting better roles than this). So many of these sequences feel stale and clichéd, and Singer's mostly uninspired direction rarely feels like more than Nazis-by-numbers.

Then, suddenly, Valkyrie springs into life. At the point where Stauffenberg finally puts his plan into action, the film finds a snappy rhythm, and Singer manages to eke genuine tension out of the bomb-planting set-piece and its aftermath. There are some great little moments, like the Cruise struggling to put the explosive in his satchel with his three fingers, or the desperate race to implement Operation Valkyrie before news of Hitler's survival spread, and this second half of the film is surprisingly eye-opening; I had no idea the plotters came so agonisingly close to pulling it off. The failure of the blast to kill Hitler can be put down to a perfect storm of sheer dumb luck, and even then the film suggests that the plan to take over Berlin might have still succeeded if one of the conspirators hadn't got cold feet, and failed to play his part in the proceedings at the critical moment. On such decisions and fateful twists the weight of history can often hang, but perhaps the biggest failing of Valkyrie is the way it never quite gives us a proper sense of the magnitude of these events. It's fairly exciting, and occasionally surprising, but even at its best the picture is never really great; it's just efficient, uneven and ultimately forgettable – and that's something a film on this subject should never be.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Review - A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël)

"All happy families are the same; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way".
– Leo Tolstoy

It's not easy to summarise the events that occur in Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale. Set in the small northern French town of Roubaix, the film follows a few days in the life of the Vuillard family; a particularly neurotic clan who come together when the matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve) is diagnosed with degenerative cancer. That's not the most festive of premises, you might think, and the whole film is haunted by the spectre of death from the start – a beautiful puppet-show opening explains how the Vuillard's first-born Joseph died at the age of six, before Junon and Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) went on to have three more children. Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) is the eldest, a playwright suffering from depression and struggling to cope with her mentally unbalanced son Paul (Emile Berling), while Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) is the youngest, happily married to Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) and the father of two children. The beautiful Mastroianni is Deneuve's real-life daughter, of course, so Desplechin teases us a little by injecting some animosity into this relationship. "She took my baby boy," Junon says when asked why she doesn't like Sylvia; "But you like me?" Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), the lover of the middle Vuillard child, responds; "You took the one I don't like" Junon explains.

The one she doesn't like is Henri, and he is portrayed by the mercurial Mathieu Amalric. After films in which he was immobile for much of the running time (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) or lumbered with a useless character (Quantum of Solace), it's great to see him on such vibrant form once again. Henri is the Vuillards' black sheep, and five years before the main events of A Christmas Tale begin, Elizabeth had him banished from the family. We get hints about what caused the deep sense of resentment that exists between Elizabeth and Henri, but nothing as straightforward as an explanation. Perhaps it was just one of those quarrels that has gone on so long nobody can quite recall how it started? Perhaps her current melancholic state is caused by her deep sense of guilt? Perhaps Desplechin simply didn't have time for a scene that cleared up the mystery, as he already has a dozen things going on at any one time, and he needs to juggle his huge cast of characters, all of whom are the lead in their own story. Fortunately, if any contemporary filmmaker is equipped for such a task, it's Arnaud Desplechin.

The director has spoken in interviews about the inspiration he took from a line of François Truffaut's: "Four ideas per minute". If anything, that line undersells A Christmas Tale, which is bursting with ideas, incident and feeling. Anyone who has already seen one of Desplechin's films, like Kings and Queen or My Sex Life...or How I Got Into an Argument, will know what to expect from his latest work, but newcomers may be taken aback by his restless, discursive style. He loves to fill his films with allusions to other movies – Fanny and Alexander and Vertigo, among others, are referenced here – he utilises an eclectic range of music as a counterpoint to the drama, and he employs every cinematic trick at his disposal to ensure the film is never allowed to settle into routine. Desplechin will iris in on various objects, he'll ask a character to suddenly break the fourth wall and address us directly, he'll use split screens – but instead of feeling gimmicky, these devices make the movie feel gloriously alive. One of techniques that the director utilised in Kings and Queen is reemployed here, when Elizabeth reads a letter from Henri and instead of us hearing the contents in voiceover, as is customary, we see Henri sitting in front of a plain backdrop and reciting the letter straight to camera. The effect is to imbue the scene with a more potent sense of emotion than would ever have been possible through more standard means.

The way Desplechin handles emotions throughout A Christmas Tale is fascinating. The film is deeply affecting, but never sentimental or mawkish, as all of the characters' feelings are handled in the most matter-of-fact manner. "Still don't love me?" Junon asks Henri as they share a cigarette, "I never did" he replies, to which she responds "Me neither" – there is no coldness in the exchange, just a bald statement of the way things are. None of the characters in A Christmas Tale behave in a way that's expected of them, but their actions always make sense within the context of this scenario, and their behaviour always appears to come from within their complex selves. It is a long time since I last saw a film populated by so many real characters, people you can believe in outside of the picture's framework, people with complicated depths, honest desires, and hidden secrets. The quote from Tolstoy which opened this review is apt because Desplechin's films remind me of his great works, the way he can illuminate the inner lives of a large group of individuals, and it is a gift so rare in cinema.

Helping Desplechin do that, of course, is his remarkable cast, and it would be remiss of me to overlook the extraordinary performances that A Christmas Tale contains. However, it would be equally remiss to single out members of the cast, because the film is one of the finest examples of ensemble acting that I can recall. Just look at the list of actors involved in the film, and the assurance that each actor is on prime form should be enough of a recommendation. They bring such a depth of feeling to their roles, and it is that emotional texture which makes A Christmas Tale Desplechin's most accessible and satisfying picture to date. I've seen the film twice now, and I think a picture as richly layered as this demands multiple viewings to fully get to grips with it. Second time around, I found the film even more moving and transcendent than I did initially – the amorphous narrative works in mysterious ways, seemingly going nowhere until everything comes together magically at some point – and while a further viewing of A Christmas Tale clarified some of the film's mysteries, it left the answer for others lying tantalisingly out of reach. Perhaps I'll need to be a Christmas visitor at the Vuillards' a few more times before everything crystallises, but that's no hardship, because spending more time with this remarkable family is an opportunity no lover of great cinema should pass up.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Review - JCVD

It's always startling whenever a movie star famed for one type of film shows us another string to his bow, and produces the kind of performance we never would have expected from him. When the star is someone whose most recent films have been straight-to-video affairs with names like Until Death, The Hard Corps or Wake of Death (I'm sure at least one of those co-starred Troy McClure), the revelation of a sensitive, introspective side and some genuine acting ability is particularly noteworthy. The star of Mabrouk El Mechri's terrifically odd meta-drama JCVD is Jean-Claude Van Damme, and as you may have guessed from the title, he's playing himself – or at least, a self-lacerating version of himself – which has turned out to be the role of a lifetime. Not everything in JCVD works, but the film is an utterly fascinating piece of work, the kind of picture you can't drag your eyes away from because you have no idea where it's going to go next; and at the centre of it all is one of the bravest, most extraordinary performances you'll see this year. Just ask yourself this: When was the last time a Jean-Claude Van Damme film reduced you to tears? (And no, I don't mean tears of laughter, smartass).

JCVD certainly begins on familiar turf, before winding down some unexpected byways. The opening sequence finds Van Damme single-handedly defeating wave after wave of gun-toting soldiers as he makes his way through some kind of blandly generic warehouse. The camera follows him all the way, and as the shot continues we can see clues that this is mere moviemaking – the punches don't quite connect, the explosions are a little off the mark – until an extra finally exposes the artifice by knocking down a piece of the set, and ruining the whole take. "I'm 47 years old" Van Damme complains to the Chinese director, "I can't do it all in one shot", but his appeals fall on deaf ears. The Jean-Claude Van Damme we are presented with in JCVD is a pathetic figure – a has-been as an action star, and a failure as a father. While struggling to keep his career on some kind of even keel, he is also engaged in an ugly custody battle over his daughter, with his wife using Van Damme's own DVDs as evidence of his unsuitability as a parent. The guy needs a break to clear his head and refresh his spirits, so he heads home, which is where the trouble really starts.

In the small Belgian town where he was born, Van Damme finds himself in a post office just as a robbery is taking place, and as the police and curious onlookers gather outside, word quickly spreads that the star is the one orchestrating this hostage situation. JCVD is part heist movie, part biopic, and part postmodern, Kaufman-esque head-trip, and even if El Mechri always doesn't blend those unlikely ingredients as potently as he might have done, he still creates an intriguing and singular piece of filmmaking. The young writer/director is hardly lacking in confidence (he even sings one of the songs on the soundtrack), and he has a lot of fun playing with the structure of JCVD; cutting back-and-forth between the post office and various scenes from Jean-Claude's life, replaying key sequences from multiple angles, and frequently finding unusual angles on the action. His screenplay is full of details from Van Damme's real history, referencing his drug and marital problems, and dividing the film's chapters with some of the star's legendary Zen-like aphorisms ("Stone falls on egg. Egg breaks"); and he makes a number of comical stabs at the lowly state of the actor's career. Jean-Claude's conversations with his feckless agent are particularly amusing; he learns in one scene that he has lost a role to Steven Seagal, because "Steven has promised to cut off his ponytail".

These scenes are so much fun it's a shame JCVD tends to get bogged down in the hostage plotline – it lacks tension and feels overstretched – and El Mechri's taste for the unexpected has unfortunately extended to the lighting, which is harsh and garish throughout; but JCVD is almost always engrossing, and much of that is down to its leading man. This is a great performance from Van Damme, he's deadpan, appealing and unfailingly honest, and much like Mickey Rourke's recent turn in The Wrestler, he seems to feed all of his experiences, hopes and fears into this one defining role. He plays along charmingly with the joke, rolling with all of El Mechri's punches, but halfway through the film he suddenly breaks the fourth wall, and embarks upon an extraordinary six-minute monologue in which he bemoans the mistakes and embarrassments that have littered his career. As a tearful Van Damme floated towards the ceiling and delivered his soliloquy, I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing. Is this great acting? Maybe not, but maybe it's something even more commendable, because it takes a brave man to open himself up to this kind of naked self-analysis on screen, and Van Damme never flinches from the task in hand. I'm not sure if JCVD adds up to much in the end – its deconstruction of celebrity eventually gets lost somewhere in the hostage hubbub – but it is an enjoyable, endlessly surprising and occasionally astonishing picture, which cuts deeper than you might expect. "Nothing! I have done nothing!" Van Damme cries, with real tears running down his cheeks, "I truly believe it's not a movie" – and, for a few amazing minutes, so do we.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Review - The Wrestler

It has been said that 90% of a director's job is casting, but in the case of a film like The Wrestler, it's tempting to nudge that percentage up a little. After watching Darren Aronofsky's picture, it's impossible to imagine anyone other than Mickey Rourke taking on the role of Randy "The Ram" Robinson and dominating the picture in the way he does. This is one of those cases where the performance is about more than mere acting, and we can see a whole lifetime of regret and sadness pouring out through the actor's eyes, which still occasionally sparkle under that swollen face. Rourke's visage has changed a lot over the past twenty years, and he barely resembles the sleek, handsome young actor who briefly blazed a trail through the 80's, but he has never been more compelling or empathetic than he is here, as a self-professed "broken down piece of meat".

Rourke anchors The Wrestler, and without him (and without Marisa Tomei, who offers sterling support) the movie would barely exist; for aside from the commanding performances on show, The Wrestler is pretty thin stuff. It's the kind of story we've seen a dozen times before done in a dozen different ways, and Aronofsky doesn't have much to bring to the scenario that's fresh, with the film finding and embracing every hoary old cliché a picture like this could possible throw up. Rourke's Randy was a big name in the 80's – his bout against his nemesis The Ayatollah has passed into legend – but now he's getting by on whatever he can scrape together from a part-time supermarket job and the bruising wrestling matches he still takes part in. One of The Wrestler's chief pleasures lies in the way Aronofsky acknowledges the fakery surrounding the sport without short-changing the brutality and physicality of events inside the ring. We see the fighters in the locker room before their matches, choreographing their moves and deciding the outcome before the first bell has rung, but when they take a hit during the bout, they get hit hard.

The Wrestler is good at capturing the sense of camaraderie that exists between these men, as well as the bleak futures that lie ahead for most of them. In one scene, Randy attends a fan convention, and between signing autographs, he casts an eye over his fellow veterans – one is in a wheelchair, another has a catheter bag poking out from under his trouser leg. These peeks backstage are far more interesting than the fights themselves, which are bloody and hectic, but not shot with any kind of imagination by Aronofsky, although this film does mark a real change of pace from the director after three films in which his aesthetic grew increasingly stylised. Shot on a tiny budget with handheld cameras and natural lighting, the film is a far cry from his last feature – the dazzling but baffling flop The Fountain – and his unadorned vérité style actually recalls the Dardenne brothers rather than any standard Hollywood fare.

Unfortunately, Robert Siegel's screenplay is pure Hollywood, and the clunky, obvious manner in which it deals with the story's themes is often excruciating. It's not enough for us to pick up on the religious imagery for ourselves, someone has to say to Randy, "You look just like that guy, from The Passion of the Christ"; and if Randy's earlier quote about being a piece of meat wasn't blunt enough, he later underlines it by pushing his finger into a bacon slicer. The whole film is riddled with cheesy, trite dialogue, never more so than during the underwhelming scenes between Randy and his estranged daughter (a shrill Evan Rachel Wood), which is a subplot the film doesn't need, and which could have easily been jettisoned without making the slightest difference to the picture's emotional wallop. There's already enough pathos in Randy's story as it is, the film doesn't need to strain for tears in such a hackneyed fashion.

After all, it's hard not to be moved by this character – an essentially decent man forced to batter his ageing body to earn a crust, unable to establish a meaningful connection with anyone outside of his sport – and when Randy suffers a heart attack halfway through the film, he looks like a man staring into a deep void. What does the future hold for a wrestler who can't wrestle anymore? In his despair, he tries to reach out to Marisa Tomei's Cassidy, a stripper who enjoys Randy's companionship but who insists on maintaining strict boundaries, and there's a genuine chemistry between these two actors that lights up the film. Aronofsky continually tries to draw unsubtle parallels between the pair – they're performers who use their bodies to create a fantasy for the audience, they have fake public personas, they're trying to fight the ravages of time (although I'd argue that Tomei looks more radiant with every passing year) – but Rourke and Tomei manage to slip out of their boxes to become living, breathing people. It's a shame the film can't find a way to do something more interesting with them, though. The Wrestler falls into a predictable formula as it approaches its climax, and one can almost begin to anticipate the story beats right on cue (I groaned inwardly as Cassidy fled the stage for Randy's all-or-nothing final bout).

For all of the violence in The Wrestler, for all of the harsh truth and tears shed, my favourite scene in the whole film occurs in the unlikely surroundings of a deli meat counter, behind which Randy reluctantly stands and takes orders. Gradually, he begins to warm to his role, and he strikes up some banter with the bemused customers as he serves them slices of ham. The scene is a standout because it has a freshness and vitality that is absent from most of the film, and the way Rourke interacts with the real people he encounters is a joy. In these scenes, the actor's unmistakable charisma shines through, and there's something deeply touching about this small moment when he seems to have found a role away from the ring that he can similarly make his own. We know it can't last, of course, but we really want him to make it work, and that's why we stay with The Ram all the way to the bitter end, as he prepares to take a final leap from life's top rope, knowing it could be his last.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Review - The Spirit

Frank Miller has been riding the crest of a wave in Hollywood recently. His graphic novels Sin City and 300 were brought to the screen with a reverence and fidelity that was almost unheard of in previous film adaptations, and now he has been handed the directorial reins on another comic book project, although the abomination he has produced should curb his filmmaking ambitions for a while. The Spirit is adapted from a 1940's comic by Will Eisner, Miller's friend and mentor, who died in 2005. The title character (played by the vapid Gabriel Macht) is an ex-cop who was murdered and resurrected as a near-indestructible crime fighter, and who stalks the rooftops of Central City in his trademark black suit, mask and hat, with his red necktie providing the only dash of colour as he moves through the shadows, rescuing damsels in distress. The Spirit has a thing for the ladies, you see, and they have a thing for him; and in the course of this movie he'll cross paths with half-a-dozen scantily clad women, some of whom love him, and some of whom want to kill him.

His ultimate enemy is The Octopus (played by Samuel L Jackson in possibly the loudest and most irritating performance of his career); a mascara-wearing, gun-toting madman who wears flamboyant costumes and shouts about eggs a lot. He's eager to get his hands on a vase containing the blood of Hercules, and he is assisted in this aim by Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), who doesn't really do much aside from standing around awkwardly at the edge of the frame. Of course, The Spirit is ready to do battle with this dastardly foe, but what's surprising about the film is that their first confrontation with each other occurs within the opening fifteen minutes. The pair face off in a swamp and begin beating each other over the head with whatever comes to hand, but as both are seemingly invulnerable, the conflict just resembles a particularly long-winded and unimaginative episode of Itchy & Scratchy. At one point, The Octopus picks up a toilet and smashes it over Spirit's head, pinning his arms with the seat. "Come on!" Jackson cries, "Toilets are always funny!" No Sam, they're not.

It was around this point, as I tried valiantly to figure out what the hell was going on in front of me, that I suddenly had a startling thought – Frank Miller has no idea what he's doing. Miller already has one directing credit to his name – as a co-director on Robert Rodriguez's Sin City – but I'm guessing that was just a token gesture from Rodriguez, an appreciation of the man whose work he so obviously admires. In flying solo on this project, Miller quickly shows himself to be completely incompetent; a lifetime of filling static frames has not prepared him for the fact that movies actually need to move, and whenever he is faced with any kind of dynamism in this picture, he loses it. He cannot compose a shot to save his life, and he doesn't seem to know what his actors should be doing as they deliver their lines, leading to one embarrassing scene in which Jackson and Johansson walk back and forth across the screen for about two minutes while spouting expository dialogue. I should point out that they are dressed in traditional Japanese dress at the time, and later, when they capture and torture The Spirit, they both appear on screen clad as Nazis. The reasoning behind all of this escapes me.

In fact, there seems to be very little reasoning behind anything in The Spirit. The clothes and decor suggest the film is taking place in the era that Eisner originally set his comic in, but the mood is spoiled by mobile phones, laptops and enormous guns. Miller's plotting is practically incomprehensible, with flashbacks and weird fantasy sequences (featuring Jaime King as, I'm guessing...Death?) piling up on one another as Macht's ceaselessly dour narration drones on all over it. At least the flashbacks do feature the film's single commendable performance, from Seychelle Gabriel, who plays the teenage version of the character later portrayed by a wooden Eva Mendes, and she seems to be the only person in the film who has some grasp of her character. Everyone else just appears to be lost.

All of this begs the question – why on earth did nobody step in at any point in The Spirit's production when it became clear that Miller was producing the most amateurish superhero movie since Batman and Robin? I have no idea, but I'm guessing the line among the producers was something like "Hey, it looks a lot like Sin City and it has loads of half-naked women", so they let Miller get on with it. Sin City is obviously the model that Miller is aping here, but at least Rodriguez knows how to edit, how to shoot, how to direct, and that movie had fleeting moments of visual magic. Throwing gaudy flashes of colour and inconsistent silhouettes together in a nourish milieu does not amount to the same thing, and by the time the nonsensical finale arrives, Miller's desperation is almost tangible. The Spirit is empty of any logic, feeling or intelligence; it is visually and morally ugly, and the fact that this ineptly made garbage has been released in such a state is an insult. Some films are just plain bad, but The Spirit feels like nothing less than a crime against cinema.

Review - Che

The Che I saw, and the film I'm going to write about here, is not the Che that most people will experience. My review is based upon the viewing of the whole 4+ hours in one sitting, with a 15-minute interval between segments, while the picture has been divided into two parts for mass consumption, with the first being released in the UK in early January, and the follow-up arriving in February. Part One details the Cuban revolution, while the second instalment focuses on the failed attempt to repeat that feat in Bolivia, and perhaps that's the best way to experience Steven Soderbergh's epic account of Che Guevara's rise and fall, because as a single cinematic experience I found it all a bit indigestible. I wonder, though, if I would still have the same doubts about the whole enterprise even if I had watched them separately, as there appear to be some fundamental flaws in the way Soderbergh has brought this story to the screen.

It's a strange thing, to watch a film and admire almost every decision the filmmakers have made, while simultaneously finding very little to really care about in what I was seeing. Soderbergh has admitted he wanted to avoid any "biopic moments" in his telling of the Che story, but he fails to give us anything in place of those moments, and at times he seems perversely determined to prevent any kind of audience engagement with the story. His direction is detached and objective as he maintains a consistently muted tone throughout, using Che as an examination of the process of revolution, and the nuts and bolts of guerrilla warfare, but he seems oddly uninterested in the man at the centre of these two films. Soderbergh and his screenwriters Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen have adapted their screenplays from Guevara's own diaries, but while the resulting films never feel anything less than utterly authentic, the coldly clinical nature of them fails to sustain the mammoth running time.

Of course, that might not be such an issue for the majority of viewers, who will be viewing Che as separate two-hour pictures, but I think the first half feels like the most satisfying and complete of the pair. The film introduces us to the young Argentine doctor Ernesto Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) in 1956, when he first encountered Fidel Castro (a fine impersonation from Demián Bichir), and then the pair take a boat to Cuba, where they will begin their rebellion against the Batista regime. The ensuing scenes are fascinating to watch, as Che slowly begins to build an army in the hills, delivering rousing speeches, and training and educating the men around him into real soldiers. Che's narrative doesn't exactly flow in a smooth manner, but Soderbergh's nimble editing ensures the progression of events still hangs together, while his cross-cutting between Che's 1964 appearance in New York acts as a kind of narration. We see how Che insisted that his men be disciplined and literate, and we see how he won the hearts and minds of the villagers he encountered, and the film builds steadily to the Battle of Santa Clara in 1959; a battle which effectively toppled the Batista government, and which is presented here as a thrillingly immediate, brilliantly sustained set-piece.

Che: Part Two is a very different film. From the start, Soderbergh highlights the difference by downsizing the aspect ratio to 1.85 and employing a jumpier handheld style, while the digital cinematography – so vivid and lush in the first film – is more washed-out. If the first segment was about the success of Che's ideology in Cuba, then the second is about him failing to impose that same ideology on the Bolivian people, and as such the film becomes a slow study of failure, which lacks the variety or tonal shifts that kept the first instalment interesting. Again, one should bear in mind that I was about three hours into my Che experience at this point, but halfway through the increasingly turgid second film my attention began to waver. For all of the conviction and authenticity of these movies, the lack of a real emotional centre begins to tell the longer they go on.

That's why I think Soderbergh's dismissal of "biopic moments" is misguided. In the hands of a skilled filmmaker – which he undoubtedly is – those moments can be a useful shorthand to help draw the viewer into the life of the man whose story is being told. Soderbergh doesn't do himself any favours by skipping over the most controversial part of Che's life – the years when he was in power – which opens him up to accusations of making a hagiography, but while Che isn't quite a hagiography, it never develops into more than a one-dimensional portrait of the men either. The tragedy is that Benicio Del Toro is perfect for the role; a commanding presence who holds our attention through his understated intensity, it's so easy to believe in him as a leader of men. Occasionally we get peeks inside Che – his vulnerability is suddenly exposed when he is felled by an asthmatic attack in the second picture – but for the most part this figure exists totally on the surface. After watching Che, I came out of the film knowing a lot more about the details of the Cuban revolution and its ill-advised Bolivian counterpart, but the film taught me next to nothing about the man behind them. Perhaps that was exactly what Soderbergh was going for, and in that case these two films can be considered an unusual success, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that some kind of opportunity has been thrown away here.