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’Tis the Season…

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Benicio del Toro in Che.  

This is a case where an actor makes the difference. Mickey Rourke was once among our most charismatic leading men: alert, wittily self-contained (he always seemed to be smiling at a private joke), with a high but seductive voice. Whatever the hell he did to himself, it worked for Sin City, in which the makeup for his monster-man avenger Marv brought out the freakish poetry in his distended physiognomy. In The Wrestler, his face has that poetry without the makeup. Rourke has long blond hair that makes him look like a battered lion, and his tight, swollen mask makes Randy’s struggle to bare his soul even more momentous. It’s dumb, it’s outlandish, but smashing other people’s heads and getting his own smashed back really does complete him.

Che, which runs about four and a half hours, chronicles the two big revolutionary battles in the life of Che Guevara (Benicio Del Toro): Part One is Cuba (cigars for everybody), Part Two Bolivia (last cigars for everybody). As movie directors go, Steven Soderbergh is an intellectual, which means that when he has a brainy conception for a film, he has a hard time letting it go—or ringing variations on it, testing it. His notion here is to show you temporally, tactilely, how grueling it is to slog through a jungle and violently overthrow an unjust government; for Che it was even harder because (a) he had terrible asthma, and (b) he insisted on toting books with him to teach his soldiers (who had to be literate) about the historic struggles of the proletariat. Che is an impressive physical feat, but especially in the second part, which gives you day after day of rebels being killed and indigenous poor people not joining the good fight, you start to look forward to Che getting riddled by bullets. The whole movie is a forced march.

In The Reader, Kate Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, a glum, buttoned-down German with a dark secret, which we know has significance because the protagonist, Michael (David Kross when young, Ralph Fiennes when middle-aged), has a teacher who lectures, “The notion of secrecy is central to Western literature.” The Reader comes with its own reader’s guide. Michael loses his virginity to Hanna anyway, although he should probably have guessed that it wouldn’t end well when, in the course of peeling off her stockings, she gives him a hard stare and asks, “Haff you always been weak?” Nazi ideals die hard. Michael’s face signals hurt, there are sad piano chords, he turns away, then Hanna’s face reveals that she knows she has been cruel. The director, Stephen Daldry, has radar for the obvious, which he imparts to his actors. Hanna insists that Michael read to her before their couplings, but the pall is so heavy that neither the reading nor the sex looks like much fun. In the movie’s second half, Michael tries to understand how not-bad people can do very bad things and whether learning to read can make a difference. It appears that the filmmakers have taken Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil” way too literally.

John Leguizamo gives his truest performance on film as a failed boxer in Salvatore Stabile’s emotional roller-coaster Where God Left His Shoes. Axed from the card of an upcoming bout, he loses his apartment and goes with his wife (Leonor Varela) and two children (David Castro, Samantha Rose) into a homeless shelter. The film follows his frantic efforts to get them out of there by Christmas, which involves fast-talking and then pleading with housing directors and a series of potential employers while his belittled son traipses around the city after him. The acting, the on-the-fly atmosphere (the film was shot quickly), and Leguizamo’s increasingly urgent hustle are deeply evocative, but parts of the movie are almost too painful to endure. Like The Pursuit of Happyness—but with a vastly different ending—the film taps into the primal fear of not being able to protect one’s family from the cruelty of the world. Given these times, it’s almost too big a dose—it gives your bad dreams bad dreams.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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