Tuesday, July 21, 2009

DVD Review: Beyond Rangoon/Two Lovers/Che (Part One and Two)

It’s taken almost 15 years but John Boorman’s sadly underrated and neglected drama Beyond Rangoon (1995) has finally been released on DVD. One of the riskiest pictures Boorman (Deliverance, Excalibur) has ever made, Beyond Rangoon is a potently absorbing piece of work. The story focuses on Laura Bowman (Patricia Arquette), an American nurse whose husband and son are murdered during a home invasion. In order to give herself time to heal, she agrees to accompany her sister (Frances McDormand) on a trip to Burma. Since they are making the trip in 1988, they encounter the rise of the democracy movement led by pacifist Aung San Suu Ko against the brutality of the military dictatorship under General Ne Win.

The daring in Boorman’s work here is the way he subtly illuminates how the Burmese uprising stirs Bowman out of the catatonic shock over her family’s murder. She not only rediscovers her calling as a nurse, but becomes politically motivated as well. When she makes herself a target for killing by the government, she simultaneously comes to terms with the intimate details of the deaths she's experienced closer to home. Bowman immediately wakes up to a fragile world where life and death have become delicately intertwined.

John Boorman has always been a humanist director, but sometimes he got caught up in the kind of New Age mysticism (The Emerald Forest) that inadvertently rendered his films as exercises in camp. In Beyond Rangoon, Boorman envisions the Burmese torpor as a fever dream where Bowman (along with the country) awakens into a spiritual affirmation that comes with a heavy price. Although many critics at the time complained that Boorman cast the Burmese revolution through the eyes of a Westerner, Beyond Rangoon does not cheapen their struggle by doing so. If anything, Boorman vividly shows us the full cost of the burgeoning idealism of the Burmese democracy movement. The picture couldn’t be timelier.

When I first saw James Gray’s 1994 crime film Little Odessa, I thought the director was terrified of light. Although it was an intelligent examination of a Russian hit man confronting his brother in Brighton Beach, I was amazed that any of the actors could see who they were talking to. There were moments when I felt the need of a flashlight just to follow what was going on. His 2000 film noir The Yards was marginally better, but Gray’s style continually suffered from a kind of heavy-spirited malaise that made his movies needlessly dense and turgid. However, in the superb We Own the Night (2007), he took that same malaise and finally located it in the characters rather imposing it onto the style of his films. In his latest picture, Two Lovers, Gray once again returns to his home turf of Brighton Beach, but with a whole new authority. Two Lovers is not only his best movie; it’s one of the strongest American films so far this year.

Based loosely on Dostoevsky’s White Nights, Two Lovers is about a paradoxical form of spiritual rejuvenation. Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) is a depressed young man who still lives with his Jewish family. Working in the garment trade, they want him to marry Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of family friends they also hope to merge with in their business. While Leonard is taken by Sandra’s desire for him, he simultaneously encounters Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a troubled neighbour who captivates him. He begins to fall in love with her although she is caught up in a turbulent relationship with a married man.

It’s no secret that Joaquin Phoenix is one of our most exciting actors. (He gave a perfectly modulated performance in Gray’s We Own the Night where he slowly evolved from a lively kid operating in the world of gangsters into a darkly moody man who had gone straight in his family of cops.) In Two Lovers, Phoenix takes us inside a loner who's torn by his desire for a love affair that's borne of longing with his ambivalent acceptance of a relationship that would offer him emotional stability. Phoenix is equally matched here by Paltrow playing one of her best roles in years. There's also some fine work by the lovely Vinessa Shaw, plus Isabella Rossellini as his concerned mother. Two Lovers provides the kind of wistful romanticism that lingers long into the night air.

I’m not sure why Steven Soderbergh decided to make a two-part epic study of Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentinean doctor who helped Fidel Castro launch the 1959 Cuban Revolution and then died trying to ignite one in Bolvia in 1967. Judging from the 4 ½ hour cut I saw at the Toronto Film Festival, Soderbergh doesn't seem to know either. There’s certainly a compelling story to tell here but Steven Soderbergh’s vision is so amorphous that the picture evaporates as you watch it.

Michael Mann’s recent gangster film Public Enemies also evaporated because it had no point of view. In it, Mann failed dramatically to help us understand the life of John Dillinger and the era of the Depression-era bank robbers who captivated and scared many Americans. The picture became vague and indistinct as if he thought that it was hipper to eliminate the popular appeal of the gangster genre to make an Art Film. But Che (Part One & Two) is a different kind of problem. Soderbergh shrewdly chooses to avoid the complexities of Guevara’s life. It's as if he were afraid to alienate those who have romanticized him on T-shirts and posters, or possibly anger those who recognized Guevara's True Believer zeal. (That zeal today would have given the guerrilla a more fitting home in Al-Qaeda if Marxism hadn’t been his religion.) Leftist writer Paul Berman in Dissent perfectly caught the troubling personality of Che Guevara that Soderbergh avoids when he wrote:

"Che presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads. He founded Cuba's 'labor camp' system—the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims. To get himself killed, and to get a lot of other people killed, was central to Che's imagination. In the famous essay in which he issued his ringing call for 'two, three, many Vietnams,' he also spoke about martyrdom and managed to compose a number of chilling phrases: 'Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become …'— and so on. He was killed in Bolivia in 1967, leading a guerrilla movement that had failed to enlist a single Bolivian peasant. And yet he succeeded in inspiring tens of thousands of middle class Latin-Americans to exit the universities and organize guerrilla insurgencies of their own. And these insurgencies likewise accomplished nothing, except to bring about the death of hundreds of thousands, and to set back the cause of Latin-American democracy—a tragedy on the hugest scale."

None of these sharp, unsettling observations find a way into Soderbergh’s two films. He neutralizes the material instead thus leaving both pictures horribly inert and meaningless. Che (Part One) covers the Cuban Revolution which is inexplicably framed by Guevara’s 1964 speech before the United Nations where he attacked apartheid in South Africa and American imperialism abroad. But there is little point to providing this contrast since we never see how the fiery revolutionary evolved into the kind of political force that emanated danger as well as charm. (The picture also ignores Che's desire to have Cuba keep the Russian missiles in 1962 which would have undoubtedly led to a nuclear holocaust.) In Che (Part Two), Soderbergh follows Guevara's doomed campaign in Bolivia to spead revolution without examining how Che's adventurism contributed to his downfall. (His insensitivity to Bolivia's national pride even contributed to alienating the support of their Communist Party.)

Although Benicio de Toro, who plays Che, has the kind of smoldering personality to suggest the conflicting aspects of an ideologue, he’s directed to simply invoke the icon on the T-shirt. If Soderbergh had brought into his picture the more popular romantic view of Che, he would have at least made a movie with some point, or purpose (even if the details would be highly questionable). But in Che (Part One & Two), with his desire to walk the middle ground, Soderbergh chooses to pull his punches. In his hands, Che ends up a hollowed icon.


  1. Kevin:
    As you know, no one rocks the Che like me.
    Creativity in the fibre world can lend itself to humour through the appropriation of manipulated iconography.

  2. But when are you going to review "Tree of The Wooden Clogs"? In that masterpiece, even the tree is a better actor than Benicio...

    Your approximately,

    Jeff Chandler