MIFF 2009 reviews – Che (2009), Paper Soldiers (2008), Chocolate (2008)

Reviews of film screening during the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival.

Che (Steven Soderbergh, 2008) ✭✭✭✭
Paper Soldiers (Bumazhnyy soldat, Aleksei German Ml., 2008) ✭✭✭✭
Chocolate (Prachya Pinkaew, 2008) ✭✭✩

Che

Ernesto 'Che' Guevara (Benicio Del Toro)

Ernesto 'Che' Guevara (Benicio Del Toro)

Based on the actual memoirs of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Steven Soderbergh’s Che: Part One depicts the role that the famous revolutionary played in overthrowing the USA-friendly Cuban dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1956, while Che: Part Two depicts Guevara’s failed attempt to start a similar revolution in Bolivia in 1966. The two films are very much separate entities with Part One functioning as Che’s climb to glory while Part Two depicts his gradual downfall. As the asthmatic, Argentinean doctor who would later become a revolutionary icon, Benicio Del Toro is incredibly impressive as Che. Together with Soderbergh, he depicts Che as a dignified, intelligent and compassionate man who truly believed that the only way to achieve human rights for South American people was through the combination of a popular uprising and armed struggle. Part One is the stronger of the two films as it better establishes the link between Guevara’s actions and his politics by inter-cutting between the guerilla warfare in the Cuban forests and Guevara’s 1964 address to the United Nations. Part Two initially struggles to maintain the same level of interest although its final half hour is incredibly captivating. Both films are beautifully shot and have a similar pacing to The Thin Red Line where a lot of attention is placed on preparations and the slow build-up to actual conflict. The battle sequences are stunningly depicted in their blunt simplicity. You get the immediate impression of being right in the middle of a conflict and then the film, almost coldly, cuts the scene to move onto something else, making the violence one aspect of a larger story rather than having it as the film’s main attraction.

Paper Soldiers

It is 1961 and in a remote stretch of land in Kazakhstan, the preparations to launch the first human into space are underway. Dr. Daniel Pokrovsky is in charge of the wellbeing of the cosmonauts and he is increasingly concerned about their safety as well as suffering from his own health concerns. He is also torn romantically between his wife in Moscow and a young girl in Kazakhstan. Paper Soldiers may at first glance sound like a Russian The Right Stuff but its poetic mix of history, political discourse, philosophical discussion and human drama make it far closer in tone to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky with a slight nod to Federico Fellini as well. The fluid camera drifts over the colour-drained action to capture the strange mix of characters and objects that fill the frame. Characters talking off screen suddenly walk into a close-up shot and then move into the background, by which time the focus has switched to another element that has appeared in the shot from either the background or off camera. The ambient background sounds, perfectly balanced cinematography, and thematic mix of the personal and the political make Paper Soldiers a very beautiful and meditative film that is played out against a dreamlike, mist-filled landscape.

Chocolate

It is somewhat difficult to believe that Prachya Pinkaew,  the director of the breathtaking Muay Thai martial-arts film Ong-bak, is also responsible for this very dodgy film about a girl whose autism somehow gives her special fighting skills. That is not to say that Chocolate is not an enjoyable film because despite the horrible scripting and acting, there are a lot of laughs to be had – both of the intentional and unintentional variety. In terms of the intentional laughs, many of the fight sequences in Chocolate are a highly enjoyable combination of impressive choreography with some genuinely funny visual humour. Having said that, there are also some very lazy and contrived sequences too. The unintentional laughs come at the expenses of a villain who does things like shoot himself in the foot to appear tough and the ridiculous portrayal of autism.  If the film wasn’t so absurd then it may have been offensive.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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