CHE (2008). Upon its original theatrical release, director Steven Soderbergh's epic look at revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara was screened in some cities as two separate films – Che: Part One (subtitled The Argentine during production) and Che: Part Two (Guerilla) – and in others as a single 4-1/2-hour experience. Catching it at home on DVD allows the viewer to pursue either option, but whether it's screened in one or two sittings, the fact remains that Soderbergh's ambitious but erratic film wastes its generous running time by failing to really burrow beneath the media myth, determined not to provide much insight into the individual whose iconic image has adorned countless T-shirts and posters. The first half boasts the stronger material, as the idealistic Che (commandingly played by Benicio Del Toro) helps Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir) and his gang of rebels overthrow the Batista regime in 1950s Cuba. The second half, which finds Che taking the revolutionary road to Latin America, becomes bogged down in repetitious material, with all the additional jungle treks, gun battles and soldiers' squabbles adding nothing except minutes to the length. Two familiar faces, Maria Full of Grace's Catalina Sandino Moreno and Run Lola Run's Franka Potente, appear in key supporting roles, while Matt Damon turns up in a cameo that's about as brief (and pointless) as his blink-and-you-miss-him appearance in Francis Coppola's Youth Without Youth. Clearly, Soderbergh's take shouldn't be confused with 1969's Che! (starring Omar Sharif as Che and Jack Palance as Castro), a colossal dud that's considered by some scribes to be one of the all-time worsts. At least that's some sort of distinction; this Che, on the other hand, remains resolutely middle-of-the-road.
Extras in Criterion's three-disc set include audio commentary by Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life; a 50-minute making-of piece; 14 deleted scenes; interviews with Cuban Revolution participants and historians; and the 26-minute documentary short End of a Revolution (1968).
THE HURT LOCKER (2009). Before 2009, who knew that director Kathryn Bigelow was anything other than a Hollywood hack? Sure, sure, she's had her supporters, but practically all of her past projects have favored cold style over warm substance. The justly forgotten Blue Steel was one of the worst films of the 1990s, Point Break was merely daft masturbation fodder for fans of Patrick Swayze and/or Keanu Reeves, and the Harrison Ford dud K-19: The Widowmaker was so dull that just writing about it makes me ... zzzzzz. Where was I? Oh, yes, getting ready to praise Bigelow for a tightly wound film whose few flaws can be found in Mark Boal's screenplay rather than in her own potent direction. Boal, who co-wrote the only other worthy Iraq War film to date (In the Valley of Elah), has elected this time to focus all his attention on the soldiers who are placed in the line of fire. The Hurt Locker, an early favorite to take home the Oscar, follows the three members of a bomb squad plying their trade during the last six weeks of their tour of duty in 2004. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is the leader of the outfit, a man as reckless as he is efficient when it comes to defusing bombs. Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is the most professional – that is to say, most stable – member of the team, anxious to get away from a job he despises. And Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is the young pup of the outfit, a clean-cut kid terrified that his life will soon get snuffed out. The movie works best when its storytelling remains shaggy; it gets into real trouble when it introduces a forced subplot in which James sets out to avenge the death of a friend. But never does Bigelow falter in her direction, which, by adroitly alternating between muscular and sensitive, reapplies a recognizable face to a conflict that is already slipping from the American public conscious with all the wispiness of a bad dream.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Bigelow and Boal; a 13-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; and an image gallery presented in tandem with an audio Q&A session with Bigelow and Boal.
IN THE LOOP (2009). With only a couple of notable exceptions (such as the aforementioned The Hurt Locker), American films about the war in the Middle East have tended to be so ineffectual that viewers are less inclined to wring their hands over the real-world events being addressed and more likely to wring filmmaker necks over wasting their time. Leave it to the Brits, then, to make a topical movie that actually matters – and trust the cheeky bastards to also take that extra step by turning it into a comedy with ice in its veins and poison in its fangs. It starts when bumbling British official Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) suggests in an interview that the likelihood of a U.S.-backed war in the Middle East is a possibility. All of a sudden, the Brit hits the fan, as Foster's innocent comment reverberates through the corridors of power not only in the U.K. but here in the States as well. Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the Prime Minister's right-hand man, uses his tongue as if it were a machine gun and mows down everyone around him – not just hapless Foster – as he tries to figure out how best to handle the situation. It's decided that Foster and his suck-up assistant Toby (Chris Addison) will travel to D.C., where they must match wits – or, rather, half-wits – with both ineffectual liberal politicians brandishing an anti-war stance and soulless conservative politicos who can't wait for the killing to begin. The beauty of In the Loop – which made my 10 Best list for 2009 – is that while everything is played at a slightly surreal speed, there's nothing in the film that feels bogus. All of the performers are fearless in their respective assignments, although I especially enjoyed Capaldi and the manner in which he turns insults into an art form; among his more benign hurls, he calls Toby "Ron Weasley" and addresses James Gandolfini's U.S. military man as "General Flintstone." Recent Iraq War flicks like Lions for Lambs and Redacted sought to encourage outrage but only inspired boredom. In the Loop should provoke intelligent discourse, but honestly, will anyone be able to stop laughing long enough to get worked up?