Che Blu-ray Review
Well, as is usual for Criterion, their own notes on the transfer pretty much speak for themselves and certainly aren't mistaken in any of their assertions. Both Che Parts One and Two look absolutely stunning in their AVC MPEG-4 encodes. The Red One camera gives results that are, at times, quite mind-blowing in their deep-focus penetration and detail. For two films that decorate the screen with such intricate and testing compositions as jungles, mountains, rivers and landscapes and the characters that move through them, you couldn't reasonably ask for a better transfer than what you see here.
Che Part One is presented in 2.39:1 and Part Two in the narrower 1.78:1. Both have incredible levels of detail and a sharpness that looks natural and clean and totally un-artificial. Object delineation is firm and precise. Depth is terrific, though I will say that I was more blown away by how the Nic Cage SF thriller Knowing looked using the same digital camera. Whilst Che is acutely three-dimensional - with distant horizons, ridge-lines, trees and characters very believably positioned within an image that, at all times, looks like a window out on to the world - I was never quite as struck by this quality as I had been with Knowing. It is certainly worth stating that not all of the image is pin-sharp. There are plenty of occasions when backgrounds can appear softer, less distinct, and even some extreme left or right elements of the frame are not as finely etched. But I would have to concede that this is down to an intentional, or at least knowingly accepted aesthetic from Soderbergh, so I doubt that this is down to the transfer.
The 16mm black and white footage from Part One looks very vivid - deliberately grainy, but detailed and rammed with impact-full contrast. For the rest of the two movies, the colours are simply terrific. Of course, the dominant factors are greens, browns and yellows, and these all look utterly realistic. But the primaries, when they appear, are just as authentic and don't appear ramped-up or boosted at all. Skin-tones do alter throughout the double-helping, but, once again, this is down to the ongoing state of the characters, themselves. Some of the tans and the sick, dehydrated pallors are enormously convincing. Eyes, especially in the second story, are keen and alert and reveal that clinical inner life that so many transfers seem to lose. I will say, however, that the orange cast from the flame-throwers in Part One, out of everything else on display in both films, does look a touch digital, in that there doesn't appear, to me at least, to be any genuine energy being generated by them. Let me stress, though, that I am nit-picking ... for the sake of it.
Considering the masses of detailed vistas on view - some images of sun-dappled canyons, blue skies and clear mountain peaks in the distance do take the breath away - I was not surprised to find some slight element of shimmering on the leaves, but this was extremely minor and, again, I was specifically looking for it. Some instances of aliasing do occur as well, although I seem to recall only spotting this during Part One ... and I wasn't actually distracted by its fleeting presence at all. But what I will say is that the black levels can be great in terms of daytime shadow and dark materials, but they are a different thing when viewed during the night-time sequences, in that they do not look as good, or as realistic. Sometimes too strong, sometimes too faded, often with the grain intensified. This isn't anything to worry about, you understand - just something that seems slightly off compared to the excellence exhibited with the rest of the transfer. Oh, and there is absolutely no trace of DNR, and the vague touch of infinitesimal haloing is not actually edge enhancement, but part of the original image.
Very nearly a top score then. If I could award half marks, this would probably be a 9 ½. But since I can't, Che earns itself a very strong 9 out of 10 right across the double-platter.
Both Parts carry a Spanish DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that packs a wallop when called for, but is, for the large portion of either film, impressively discrete and impeccably detailed.
Although rarely flashy or demonstrative - like the films in question - the audio is fantastic in its reach, depth and all-round immersion. But you have to bear in mind that although this double-feature is ostensibly a war film, the majority of things emanating from the speakers are dialogue, movement and general ambience. Yet, the handling of all this information is studied and credible and highly consistent. Dialogue is hardly of the shouty, brazen Hollywood variety - it is often subdued and mumbled, or heard from the middle distance as opposed to up close and personal. Yet there was never once an occasion that it wasn't totally believable in its positioning, clarity and steerage.
The jungle ambience and the movement of people through it features elements that are discretely distributed right around the set-up, almost effortlessly maintaining your position credibly and enjoyably within the film's soundfield. It might not be the most continually aggressive track, but it is one of the most consistently immersive.
When the battles commence, the gunfire is very, very authentic. From the weapons being used to the appropriate weight, pop and impact of the bullets they are firing, this is extremely impressive. Clarity and directionality are key and even if this is, in no way, comparable to the likes of Black Hawk Down in terms of sheer velocity and aural violence, it remains a text-book example of speed, steerage and placement around the environment. Ricochets and scattered stones and wood also convince. The dropping of bombs from planes whizzing about overhead is smartly and powerfully rendered. In fact, Che Part Two features one of the most totally convincing overhead flybys that I have heard, thus far, on disc. So convincing was this that I literally had to pause the film just to make certain that my street wasn't being buzzed. Height, speed and movement across the ceiling was absolutely spot-on, making me flick my eyes upwards to check. Whilst the sub is largely left to sit these long films out, these are the occasions when it certainly comes into play with a vengeance. Artillery and tank fire are resounding and the aerial bomb-runs rip away at the foundations - but these bits are brief.
Once again, Che gets a massive thumbs-up for its audio presentation, and even if this mark is officially a 9 out of 10, then you can unofficially slap another half on top of that. Definitely not the most aggressive or flamboyant of lossless tracks, but certainly one of the most downright realistic.
Criterion's package for Che is definitely superior to the UK's Optimum release in terms of extras, including a few things that exclusive to themselves.
Che Part One
Exclusive to Criterion is the commentary from John Lee Anderson, the noted authority on the life and character of Che Guevara, having written extensively about him and even acted as chief consultant on Soderbergh's film, with his writings having already established a keen motivation for the producers to make a movie about Che in the first place. He is a wealth of trivia, fact and insight about the times, the places, the personalities and the events and how the film adhered to a lot, but also excised and altered much. This is a far-ranging examination of the real-life exploits as well as the film production and, thankfully, it carries on over to Part Two, as well. This is definitely worth spending some time with and it does put a lot more meat on the bones of the two campaigns and provides some vital historical, political and emotional relevance that the films, according to their more personalised style, leave out.
A 50-minute documentary, The Making Of Che, comes next. Featuring input from Soderbergh, producer Laura Bickford, Benicio Del Toro and the film's writers, Peter Buchman and Benjamin van der Veen, this is an interesting and frank look at how this ten-year dream for the production team evolved into the 2-part drama that finally surfaced. They are honest about how condensing such a massive account ultimately means changing history, and the sheer amount of detective work that was required to unearth the truth behind Che's life, particularly what happened in the relative obscurity of the Bolivian campaign and the events surrounding his death - which none of them knew anything about. Soderbergh sort of rues not having gone down the TV mini-series route, as there was so much material that he wishes they could have covered, such as the Havana executions and Che's time in the Congo, but he is thankful that his persistence got him and his colleagues access to some declassified US documents that proved the steps the government wanted to take in order to quell Che's power. Detailed and well-structured, this is a great look at a complicated production from mainly the thematic side of things, and is well worth watching.
Deleted Scenes with an optional commentary from Steven Soderbergh last for around 15 minutes, and are all interesting. Some patrolling encounters, some deeper character stuff ... nothing revelatory, perhaps, but any of these could be slotted back into the film and not stick as unnecessary or superfluous.
And then we get the film's trailer.
Che Part Two
As well as the continuation of John Lee Anderson's commentary track, we get some more Deleted Scenes, only five minutes this time, with another optional commentary from the director that, once again, provide some very reasonable material that could have been left in the movie without worrying the pace too much, although compared to the first batch, these seem more restive.
A terrific 26-minute contemporary archive documentary End Of A Revolution from Granada TV's World In Action, who were lucky enough to have a team in Bolivia just in time to view Che's executed body, although their planned intentions to have actually met up with the revolutionary for a clandestine interview had failed. This is what tells the story behind the reasons that Che got involved with the country right next door to the land of his birth, and has an edge by virtue of its on-the-ball incisive reporting and sheer at-the-moment sense of timing.
Interviews From Cuba (36 mins) has Del Toro and Laura Bickford undertook exclusive sessions with people who knew Che personally and even took part in the Cuban Revolution. Recorded in 2009 and in Spanish, this is a fascinating account not only of the man and the times in which he played such a part, but of the dedication and commitment that the star and producer found necessary in order to create this interpretation.
Che And The Digital Cinema Revolution (34 mins) could have been really dry and boring ... but this detailed look at how the Red camera system was created and utilised in the filming of Che, the first feature movie to incorporate it, is actually extremely interesting.
This reasonably comprehensive package also includes a small replica of the film's theatrical poster and a very studious and pretty high-brow essay from Sight and Sound's Amy Taubin on double-part film and Soderbergh's approach to making it, in an illustrated 24-page booklet.
All that is missing, really, is a Soderbergh/Del Toro commentary track.
What you get here is, essentially, two different films detailing two different sagas that actually come to mirror one another in terms of style, mood and visual and emotional poetry. They end in different ways, but they close a circle that makes the overall journey neat but haunting, languid yet energising.
There's no denying that the methods employed and the filmmaking style produced were unusual, but Steven Soderbergh has made an intensely personal vision something that just has to be admired. I can imagine that there are many people put off by the subject matter, many who possibly know next to nothing about Che Guevara and the campaigns that he waged and, somewhat ironically, this marathon odyssey along his path to national pride and squalid downfall, doesn't really provide much of the bigger picture surrounding his crusade and his achievements. Nor does it really address his undeniable dark side. The resulting epic is, therefore, both idiosyncratic and only semi-authentic. The details are there. The personality is there. But the die-hard spark of regime-challenge and the politics that drove Che to make that sacrifice are still as confusing as ever. However, Soderbergh didn't want to make a political film, and he didn't want to take sides. Which is fair enough for the type of tale that he is telling. But somewhere along the line, we need to gauge the ideology for ourselves, and to aid us in this we should be made aware of the atrocities that provided the impetus for himself, Castro, and their followers and fellow revolutionaries during both of these campaigns.
But with simply ravishing photography, a terrifically understated performance from Del Toro, some very realistic, if low-key, battle-scenes and a strange, pervasive atmosphere of fate, this two-part epic carries a mesmerising quality that is compelling, psychologically prosaic, thoughtful and visually striking. And, thankfully, Criterion deliver a transfer that is absolutely astounding. Top class AV quality and some terrific extras are the icing on the cake for a film, and a package that cries out to join the ranks of any cineaste's collection.
A strange couplet of movies, then ... but a release that comes very highly recommended.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £30.97
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